Iran’s Regional Influence Campaign Is Starting to Flop
Tehran has long sought to throw its weight around across the region. Now the Islamic Republic is facing a backlash in Iraq, Lebanon, and at home.
As a new wave of demonstrations engulfs the Middle East, one common factor connects the protests from Baghdad to Beirut: a deep and widespread feeling of antipathy toward the Iranian regime. This is especially true in the bloodied towns and cities of Iraq—a country Iran’s leaders have regarded as theirs since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Since the outbreak of the protests in early October, various security forces, including Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have killed more than 400 Iraqis and wounded some 20,000 others. Not only is there good reason to believe that much of the brutality has taken place at the behest of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Suleimani, the notorious commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, but the available evidence seems to confirm it.
Aware of the anti-Iranian mood on the Iraqi streets—exemplified by protesters beating their shoes against portraits of Khamenei, just as they had done with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003—an unnerved Khamenei did not hesitate to intervene.
Referring to the unrest as a conspiracy orchestrated by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the “Zionist regime” (Israel), the ayatollah called on forces in Iraq to “remedy the insecurity and turmoil”—a metaphor that served as a green light for Iranian-backed militias to quash demonstrations in Iraq.
But Suleimani’s fingerprints have been found in other parts of Iraq too. It recently emerged that the day after the protests started, the Iranian general secretly flew to Baghdad to meet with security officials. Suleimani called for a heavy-handed approach to deal with people on the streets, reportedly saying, “we in Iran know how to deal with protests,” an implicit reference to prior violent suppressions of peaceful demonstrations in Iran and, more aggressively, in Syria. The death toll in Iraq surpassed 100 the day after his departure, confirming the power of Iran’s word.
But where does Tehran get its leverage over Baghdad? The bond between the Iranian regime and some of Iraq’s most powerful figures dates back four decades. From the moment Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, returned to Iran in 1979, he set his sights on exporting the Islamic Revolution to Iraq, whose population is majority-Shiite. For Khomeini, control over the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala—the holiest sites of Shiite Islam after Mecca and Medina—was tantamount to his taking the mantle of Shiite Islam and its now 200 million followers.
To achieve this, Tehran has invested heavily in hard and soft power tools to expand its influence in Iraq. This investment has eventually paid dividends. Some of the most prominent individuals in Iraq today—including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri, former government officials and leaders of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias—were initially recruited by the IRGC in the early 1980s to spread the Islamic Revolution into Iraq. But Khomeini would never live to see the takeover of Iraq, making his successor, Khamenei, all the hungrier to taste it.
After the fall of Saddam in 2003, Iran worked through the IRGC and figures such as Muhandis and Amiri to recruit Iraqi Shiite youth and organize them into militias. These recruits were not only trained militarily, but also ideologically to ensure their absolute conviction that Khamenei is the supreme authority of the Shiite world. In essence, Tehran planned to replicate its “Hezbollah model” in Iraq: nurturing militancy to gain control of territory, while encouraging these militants to take advantage of a newly created democracy as a way to penetrate political institutions. These efforts were bolstered by close cross-border clerical and personal relationships.
Now, Iran has approximately 100,000 armed Shiite militiamen, many of whom are more loyal to Khamenei than to the Iraqi state. They consistently undermine the sovereignty of the Baghdad government, effectively operating as a law unto themselves, and in doing so have exacerbated sectarian tensions. The emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 was in part a consequence of a sectarian agenda orchestrated by Iran and implemented by the Shiite militias. This new status quo has enabled Tehran to interfere more deeply in the affairs of an already fragile state, further embedding itself in Iraqi society and sowing the seeds of future discord.
Leaked Iranian intelligence cables shed light on the scale and nature of Iran’s systematic and deep-rooted interference in Iraq, from its network of militant agents to its oversight of political institutions. The cables confirm what protesters already knew: Tehran has been committing enormous resources to imposing a command-and-control structure on Baghdad. Viewed within the broader context of worsening economic conditions and unresponsive, corrupt governance, protesters see Iran as the source of their grievances, fuelling anti-Iranian sentiment on the streets.
A similar anti-Iran mood can be felt in Lebanon, where the Iranian regime’s oldest proxy, Hezbollah, has been challenged as part of anti-government demonstrations since October. The protests in Lebanon, which have been uniquely secular despite the fragile sectarian composition of its population, are driven by charges of corruption and a desire to replace a rigid and unresponsive establishment—of which Hezbollah has become an intrinsic part.
Founded with the help of the IRGC in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has consistently prioritized Tehran’s ideological interests over those of Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has made no secret of his blind loyalty to Khamenei, underlining that his Shiite Islamist party “believe[s] in him [Khamenei] more than we do the Lebanese Constitution.” It is therefore unsurprising that protesters on the streets of Lebanon can be heard chanting “here is Lebanon, not Iran,” after Nasrallah vehemently objected to any change to the country’s political system.
Protesters feel that Hezbollah’s sectarian character both has a destabilizing effect on the country and is one of the major barriers to progressive change. That’s because, similar to Iraq, any change to the current balance of power is likely to negatively affect Iranian influence in Lebanon, and for that reason, Khamenei has given the nod to Hezbollah members to quash protesters on the streets. This new wave of anti-Iran sentiment is felt in other parts of the Middle East too. A recent Asda’a BCW survey suggests that two-thirds of young Arabs consider Iran an enemy of their country.
Crucially, not only has Iran’s leadership been opposed on the ground; key religious leaders have also challenged Khamenei. The most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, wasted no time throwing his weight behind the protesters, severely undermining Iran’s pan-Shiite Islamist project. Following the recent resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Sistani doubled down against Iran’s leadership, saying that a new government must be formed “without any foreign interference.” His comments came after reports that IRGC commander Suleimani had once again been sent to Baghdad to exert Iran’s influence over the formation of a new government.
This tug of war over the Shiite heartlands will have bruised the ego of the narcissistic Iranian supreme leader, whose propaganda machine has invested significant time and money to depict his authority as being akin to God. Khamenei has so far not responded, but this is probably due to Sistani’s advanced age (89) and the Iranian clerical establishment’s hope that his death might open a vacuum they can fill.
A core aspect of this entire equilibrium is the Iranian population’s perception of its own regime. The soaring levels of public discontent in Iran have been consistently overlooked by policymakers and commentators. The most recent protests in Iran, which were brutally repressed by the regime, caught many in the West off guard—but signs of widespread discontent have been in place for many years.
While Iraqis oppose Iran’s regime over its violation of their sovereignty, Iranians are critical of it because they see it diverting their resources to adventures abroad despite major problems at home. According to official statistics, 57 million Iranians will be living below the absolute poverty line by the end of March 2020. But this hasn’t deterred the cash flow to Iran’s regional proxies and allied regimes. Since the outbreak of conflict in Syria, the Islamic Republic has spent at least $30 billion to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it annually transfers $700 million to fund Hezbollah.
The depth of public anger toward the regime should therefore come as little surprise. The latest protests were triggered by a fuel hike, but the price of fuel was merely the spark that ignited decades of anti-regime dissent in Iran. Ten years after the repression of the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement, the demographic of dissent has expanded from predominantly middle-class Iranians to broader sections of the population. The past decade has also seen an organic evolution in the demands of the Iran’s population—from reform to outright change.
In 2009, there was a genuine belief that the Islamic Republic could be reformed, expressed primarily in the demand that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist presidential candidate, be installed as president. Now, the moderate pro-reform slogans that were heard on Iranian streets in 2009 have been replaced with more hostile chants, such as “Death to Khamenei” and “Mullahs have to get lost”—signaling a broader rejection of the entire Islamic revolutionary system.
Forty years of prioritizing regional interference over domestic duties has today created the biggest wedge between the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic. The new wave of anti-regime protests in Iran, which has left hundreds dead and thousands injured in just four days, underscores the worsening mood on the streets.
Now, as protesters in Iraq chant, “Iran out, Baghdad free,” in Iran they cry, “no to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran”—reflecting a growing desire in both countries for governments that put domestic interests above regional considerations. The Iranian government could resort to violence to temporarily quash unrest in both Iran and Iraq, but the revolutionary mood will likely persist.
This current state of affairs could lead to the regime being squeezed on all sides. This is a new phenomenon. Until the latest wave of protests in the region, Iran’s regime appeared much stronger outside its borders than within. But with mass unrest against its influence erupting in Iraq and Lebanon, it looks like popular discontent is extending beyond its national territory too, and this could portend the beginning of the end for its extraterritorial reach. The cracks in Tehran’s ideological Shiite crescent are starting to surface.
One thing is certain: The IRGC and Iran’s Shiite proxies will not stand down without a fight. While the combination of pressure in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran may help weaken the regime in Tehran, it will probably be a deadly affair. The international community can no longer afford to remain silent.
For the skeptics in Washington and Europe who are advocating withdrawal from the Middle East, this unfolding imbroglio is a stark reminder as to why now is an imprudent time to retreat. People are openly rejecting the fundamentalist ideology that was born from Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The international community must signal clearly that it stands with the Iranian people—as well as those across the region—who are calling for an end to Iran’s influence externally and for a more progressive Iran internally. Abandoning them in their time of need will only risk providing a lifeline for Iran’s expansionist and authoritarian objectives.