Iran toils to snuff out turmoil in its zones of influence

Washington revealed October 31 that Iran spent $16 billion on its “militias” in Iraq and Syria, in statements made by US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.

Source: The Arab Weekly
On edge. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani (C) attends a meeting of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, October 2. (AP)

TUNIS – As protests continued across Iraq and Lebanon, demonstrators channelled their rage at Iran for allegedly meddling in their countries’ affairs, posing a threat to Tehran’s network of influence in the region.

To quell the unrest, Iranian officials blamed the United States and its regional allies for spreading “insecurity and turmoil” in Iraq and Lebanon and urged anti-government protesters to seek change lawfully.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement recognising that Iraqi and Lebanese people have legitimate demands. However, he said, “those demands can be met only through the framework of legal structures.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the countries’ leaders could mediate a solution. “We are sure that the Iraqi government, nation and clerics can overcome these problems,” he said.

However, a previous effort by Iran to stifle protests in Iraq just after they began revealed the extent of its concern. One day after protests in Iraq broke out, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani went to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

There, media reports said, he surprised a group of top security officials by leading a meeting in place of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and assured that Iran could help “control” the demonstrations.

“We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani said, according to two senior officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press (AP). “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”

Despite Iranian officials’ efforts, demonstrations grew larger in Iraq, sometimes devolving into violence. One day after Soleimani’s visit, clashes between protesters and security forces in Iraq grew more violent than before. Unidentified snipers reportedly fired, hitting demonstrators in the head and chest. Nearly 150 people were killed in less than a week.

Men in black plainclothes and masks were later seen in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were, with some speculating they were Iranians, the AP reported.

Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi said Iran’s involvement shows how “afraid” it is of the popular movement.

“Iran is afraid of these demonstrations because it has made the most gains in the government and parliament through parties close to it,” Hashimi told the AP. “Iran does not want to lose these gains. So it has tried to work through its parties to contain the protests in a very Iranian way.”

Ali al-Araqi, a 35-year-old protester from the southern town of Nasiriyah, which has seen particularly violent clashes between protesters and security forces, said Iran was also at fault for exacerbating corruption in Iraq.

“All of the parties and factions are corrupt and this is connected to Iran because it’s using them to try to export its system of clerical rule to Iraq,” he told the AP. “The people are against this and that is why you are seeing an uprising against Iran.”

In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding the resignation of a government dominated by pro-Iran factions. As in Iraq, protests were focused on local grievances.

While Lebanese protesters have only rarely called out Iran and its main local ally, the militant Hezbollah group, they have focused much of their rage on Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, from a Christian party closely allied with Hezbollah.

The chant “All means all” implies that none of Lebanon’s factions, including Hezbollah and its allies, are beyond reproach.

Fights broke out at a rally when protesters chanted against Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who said he was withdrawing his supporters from the protests, Reuters reported.

Hezbollah supporters rampaged through the main protest camp in Beirut on October 29. Shortly thereafter, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western-backed leader who had worked with pro-Iran factions in a national unity government, resigned. Protesters cheered their first victory since the demonstrations began October 17.

Iran-backed Hezbollah is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon and was alone in refusing to disarm after the 1975-90 civil war. The militia sent thousands of fighters to neighbouring Syria to help defeat the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, another key Iranian ally.

Iraq’s powerful Iran-backed militias, initially mobilised to battle the Islamic State, have also fought alongside Assad’s troops, and Iran violently suppressed its own pro-democracy protests, known as the Green Movement, after the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Washington revealed October 31 that Iran spent $16 billion on its “militias” in Iraq and Syria, in statements made by US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook to the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.

Hook did not give details on the militias or say when Iran had spent the money but the revelation could signal Washington’s growing frustration with Iran’s role in hampering stability in the region.