Citizens of Baghdad continue to fight against the current regime after over a month of protests reached a fever pitch with over 300 dead and thousands wounded. The social unrest that has shaken Iraq—though not the first time since the US overthrew Saddam Hussein—remains a tense and fragile situation that could be a turning point for the country.
The protests, as they have in the past, started over claims of corruption, graft, and government inefficiency that have left a large number of Iraqis unemployed, the country’s economy stagnant, and offer little hope of a better future. Entrenched political elites have also made it difficult to combat these problems at a root level, resisting any real anti-corruption efforts and even removing from power those that would pose a significant threat.
After days of rising unrest on the streets, the protests hit a bloody climax when militias deployed snipers to quell the demonstrations. All told, the anti-protest efforts resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries, as well as serious questions being asked. After it was revealed the snipers were deployed by Iran-backed groups, concerns have once again come to light about Iran’s dealings in Iraq, as well as what such meddling could mean in the long run.
Pouring Gasoline on the Fire
Violence at protests is nothing new in Iraq—violent protests in Basra in 2018 were dispersed when security forces opened fire on them—but this year’s clashes have tipped the scales. The shooting was initiated by Iran-backed militias that were supporting Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s regime. The groups placed snipers across the city, and assaulted protesters with gunfire, grenades, and tear gas, resulting in a total of over 300 dead and many injured.
The protests—a response to growing inequality and a lack of hope for prospects—have been more persistent than in the past, and even government guarantees and assurance of plans to combat poverty have fallen on deaf ears. Iraqis have contended with an economy that has less than 50% labor force participation, and unemployment rates that have remained near 10% for years.
Even so, the introduction of Iran into the equation adds a complex layer that could severely worsen an existing powder keg situation. Iranian influence in the country is nothing new, as it remains Iraq’s third-largest trade partner, and the political party Fata Alliance—known Iran loyalists—controls 48 seats in parliament. Moreover, Prime Minister Mahdi’s regime is largely backed by powerful Iran-supported armed militias and political alliances.
The government has claimed that the groups acted without government approval, but the fact remains that Iran-backed gunmen violently quelled a protest that left over 100 Iraqis dead. That these groups retaliated so swiftly to keep their vested interest in power shows the depths of Iran’s influence, but also the dangers inherent in the game Tehran seems to be playing. Iran has relished the power that comes from being Iraq’s only real source of vital utilities including water, electricity, and energy. More broadly, Iraq is a crucial pivot point for both Iran and the US as the former attempts to bolster its reach in the region amid tensions with the White House.
Until recently, Iran has had little care for how it entrenches its roots in Iraq. Tehran has been open about deepening Iraq’s reliance, and has not hesitated to flex its muscle to protect key allies in the fledgling democracy. Some of its tactics have even been emulated by the Iraqi government, which cut access to the internet at the height of the protests (a move that, ironically, worsened the very economic conditions being protested). However, this tightening grip has not been without repercussions in the public sphere. Iraqi citizens have long decried Tehran’s influence in their country, which they blame for a large portion of their problems and governmental quagmire.
Indeed, protesters have a case to make that Iran’s influence has led to stagnation. The current Tehran-backed administration has already shown a lack of action in its one year in power, failing to meet any campaign promises of combatting corruption. Additionally, many powerful Iraqi factions have spoken out against Iran’s influence in the country. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest religious authority, has spoken out against Tehran, as has Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential leader of the largest coalition in parliament.
No Good Outcomes
Perhaps most crucially, continued interference in the Iraqi political process by Iran threatens the country’s already precarious stability. More than a decade after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, Iraq’s political and socio-economic situation has remained concerning at the best of times. The current wave of unrest and protests are a direct result of years of corruption and mismanagement and have more momentum behind them than any in recent memory.
Iran is now playing a dangerous game in attempting to maintain its power base in the country. As Iraqis take to the streets and protest both Iraq and its reliance on Iran, having the latter sponsor extra-governmental killings of hundreds of protestors as well as tighten its grip on the political process is a sure recipe for disaster. By continuing to harm the natural evolution of democracy, Iran threatens to keep Iraq stagnant, and make its own position more untenable.