Are Iraq and Lebanon’s Protests the Result of a US-Iran Proxy War?
Protests in Iraq and Lebanon have turned into anti-Iranian demonstrations, a blame Iran places on the U.S., but are the protests really the result of a U.S.-Iran proxy war?
Recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, triggered by economic crises and poor living conditions, forced both Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Iraqi Prime Adil Abdul Mahdi to step down. But the situation in Lebanon and Iraq has also fueled Iranian suspicion that the U.S, Israel and Saudi Arabia are to blame for instigating the unrest, raising concern that Beirut and Baghdad may be caught in a U.S.-Iran proxy war.
Iraq and Lebanon Protests
The demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq erupted in early October. In Lebanon, a struggling economy compelled the government to impose new taxes on tobacco, petrol and the communication application Whatsapp, angering the Lebanese people and ultimately sparking the protests. The Hariri administration eventually rolled back the proposed tax, but the concession did not defuse the tensions.
Poor public services, wealth inequality and rampant corruption triggered Iraq’s anti-government rallies. Transparency International, which works to combat corruption worldwide, ranks Iraq 12th on the list of the world’s most corrupt nations. Protests in Iraq have also turned violent than Lebanon’s protests. More than 100 protesters were killed and thousands more injured in the first five days of rallies alone when Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters.
Recent demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq turned into anti-Iran rallies, as protesters expressed anger at Iran for backing their respective governments.
In late October, Reuters reported that Iran stepped in to block the dismissal of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi in the face of a call by popular Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for a snap election. Sadr reportedly had asked Abdul Mahdi’s main rival, Al Amiri, to force out Abdul Mahdi until Iran stepped in to pressure al-Amiri’s Iranian supported alliance of militias to do otherwise. Abdul Mahdi ultimately agreed to resign as a successor is named.
In Lebanon, Iranian-supported Hezbollah is the country’s most influential political party and is part of a political block that won control of Lebanon’s government in 2018. Hezbollah and therefore, Iran, would have much to lose in an overthrowal of Lebanon’s government. Protesters have criticized Hezbollah for not doing enough to stop corruption. Hezbollah has responded by trying to quell the protests while not losing its popular support.
Iran Accuses US and Allies of Meddling in Iraq and Lebanon
However, Iran claims the U.S and its allies are behind the turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon and accuses the U.S. of co-opting the peaceful protests, steering them towards violence and anti-Iran sentiment.
The Arabic-language Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar reported in October that sources close to the Iraqi prime minister told them Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, and the U.S embassy turned the peaceful demonstrations into chaos.
“Based on the precise security intelligence collected in the past few days, the Israeli intelligence service along with agents hired by the US embassy in Baghdad used the popular protests in Iraq and led the peaceful rallies towards chaos and sabotage acts,” the unidentified sources told Al Akhbar.
Meanwhile, a social media analysis by the Iranian Fars News Agency in early October reported that the majority of Twitter hashtags related to the anti-government rallies in Iraq originated inside of Saudi Arabia. They reported 79% originated from Saudi Arabia and only 6% from Iraq while another 1% came from the U.S.
Additionally, just a few months before protests rocked Lebanon, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, while visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly received a secret document detailing a U.S.’ and Israeli plan to foment unrest and civil war in Lebanon.
Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed aired photos of the document which was later translated by Geopolitics Alert. The legitimacy of the document and who handed the papers to Aoun is unknown.
According to Geopolitics Alert’s translation of the document, the U.S and Israel were planning to destabilize Lebanon and spark a civil war that would “help Israel on the international scene.” The document also acknowledged Israel would plant false flags in Lebanon and detailed U.S.’ plans to splinter the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, a domestic institution separate from the Lebanese Army.
“The plans involve Washington investing 200 million dollars into the Internal Security Forces (ISF) under the guise of keeping the peace but with the covert goal of creating sectarian conflict against Hezbollah with 2.5 million specifically dedicated to this purpose,” wrote Geopolitics Alert.
Lastly, during a meeting with Lebanese officials in March, U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Beirut to depose of Hezbollah from the government and gave an ominous warning.
“The US will continue to use all peaceful means, everything at our disposal to choke off the financing, the smuggling, the criminal network and the misuse of government positions and influence,” Pompeo warned last March in a joint news conference with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The US’ Affinity for Proxy Wars
The United States is no stranger to proxy wars and attempts to instill regime change. According to the Washington Post, the United States government has attempted to change another country’s government at least 72 times. After 9/11, the U.S. may have turned its regime change and meddling tendencies on the Middle East.
In 2007, U.S. General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander during the Kosovo War, Clark infamously listed off a number of countries that were planned targets of the Pentagon during an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. Among them were Iraq and Lebanon.
In a description of a conversation Clark had with a Pentagon official shortly after 9/11, Clark tells Goodman:
“So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from upstairs’ — meaning the secretary of defense’s office — ‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.’ I said, ‘Is it classified?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t show it to me.’ And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, ‘You remember that?’ He said, ‘Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!’
Is Iran Losing Its Influence in the Middle East?
Shiite political groups took political control of Iraq after Washington-backed forces removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Shia-dominant Tehran has supported Shiite militia groups and political parties in the oil-rich country, including Hashd al-Shaabi, a Shiite-dominated paramilitary institution. But things look troubling for Iran in Iraq and Lebanon as protests rock the country.
Even prior to the protests, signs of Iran’s waning influence in Iraq became apparent after a 2018 survey by the research group Alustakilla. The study showed that the percentage of Iraqi Shiites supporting Iran dropped sharply from 88% in 2015 to 47% in 2018.
With anti-Iran chants on Lebanon and Iraqi streets and Iraqi citizens attacking the Iran consulate in recent days and Iran battling U.S. economic sanctions and the falling apart of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran may very well be in a fight to maintain its sphere of influence.