Analysis

Iraqi Protests Have Become Internal Threat for Iran

The gasoline price hike is causing the Iranian street to erupt, but if Iraqis topple their government, it could fuel an even bigger protest movement in Iran

People stop their cars on the highway in Tehran, Iran, to protest against increased gas prices, November 16, 2019.
WANA News Agency/Reuters

Neither Iraqi citizens nor their leaders needed The Intercept’s exposé and The New York Times’ article to tell them just how deeply Iran is entwined in Iraq. It’s enough to know that Iraq depends on Iran to supply 45 percent of its electricity consumption in order to understand Iran’s enormous hold on the Iraqi economy and its influence on the lives of every citizen.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Karbala and other major cities know very well that Iraq cannot be weaned off Iran through force. With annual trade between the countries topping $12 billion and the Iraqi tourism industry leaning considerably on Iranian pilgrims, Iran is Iraq’s most important and irreplaceable trading partner.

Demonstrators take part in the ongoing anti-government protests at Ahrar bridge in Baghdad, Iraq, November 18, 2019.
Abdullah Dhiaa al-Deen/Reuters

The agreement Iraq singed with Saudi Arabia, which offers it a contract to lay a power line to replace the Iranian electricity and opens the border crossing between the two countries, are still far from meeting Iraqi citizens’ needs. The impetus of the protests is aimed at the corruption of the Iraqi government, which for the past 16 years – since the country was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s rule – has failed to provide a decent infrastructure of services and create jobs for millions of unemployed people. Meanwhile, billions of dollars have wound up lining the pockets of cronies, movement and party leaders, local militias, the corrupt army and the dysfunctional government.

The usual analysis, which sees these demonstrations – together with the ones in Lebanon and Iran – as the beginning of a fission between Iran and Iraq, creates a catchy, encouraging narrative that Iran is losing its hold in the Middle East, or at least is on the verge of a political crisis that could topple the regime. And as usual, U.S. President Donald Trump is again being criticized for not actively helping the protesters in Iran or at least exploiting the opportunity to create a channel for topping the regime through them. It seems that nothing could have helped the regime and the Revolutionary Guards more effectively than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of Iran’s iron fist policy toward them and his public declaration to the demonstrators that “the United States is with you.”

Most Iraqi papers and the Arab and Iranian media in general published the contents of the documents that The Intercept released on Monday, but it isn’t certain that they will influence the Iraqi government’s conduct or deter Iran from continuing its meddling. Indeed, if up until last week, the protests in Iraq constituted a threat to Iran’s control in the region, now, with the eruption of the Iranian street, that threat has become an internal, political one. If Iraqi protesters topple the government, their success could further ignite protests in Iran. The enormous responsibility that falls on Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, is to stop this development not only to save the Iraqi regime but also to dampen the rebellion in his own country.

A gas station that was burned during protests that followed authorities' decision to raise fuel prices, Tehran, Iran, November 17, 2019.
Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh/ISNA via AP

The Iranian government announced on Monday that starting immediately, it would compensate poor families for the gasoline price hike that sparked the protests. The problem is that the hike, an increase of 50 percent, mainly hurts the middle class, which has the potential to protest, but the government has no quick solution like compensation that could calm them -- other than to cancel the price increase. President Hassan Rohani may enjoy the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, who ruled that everybody should obey the law and the government’s policies, but the parliament has already called Rohani for a hearing and will demand explanations for the higher prices and possible solutions.

It’s conceivable that if Khamanei decides the fuel price hike poses a significant threat, he will order the government to retract at last some parts of it. The Iranian regime still has sufficient political and economic maneuverability to quiet the protests, especially with the inauguration of the new oil refineries that are supposed to liberate it from fuel imports.