Cartoon by Hassan Bleibel
Tehran’s power is spreading, and with it comes violence
Observer editorial: The resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, which should be confirmed by parliament in Baghdad in the next few days, is a necessary and welcome step if Iraqis are to find some respite from the violent protests sweeping their country. But his departure does not signal an end to the crisis, whose root causes extend far beyond the failures of any single politician.
More than 400 mostly young, mostly unarmed and mostly Shia Muslim demonstrators have been killed by the security forces since the unrest began in October. In the past few days alone, many dozens have died or been injured as anger over the Shia-led government’s venality and incompetence has been compounded by the murderous brutality of its attempts to contain it.
Significantly, Abdul-Mahdi’s decision came in response not to the demands of the street but to a televised sermon by the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, perhaps the most venerated and influential cleric in the Shia world. After his earlier warnings were ignored, Sistani delivered a coup de grace last week, saying it was time for the government to “reconsider its choices”.
Sistani represents one of the few centres of power in Iraq not directly or indirectly controlled by Iran – and this has a bearing on what happens next. A key complaint of Iraq’s protesters concerns how the regime in Tehran has succeeded, especially since the Americans left, in gaining decisive influence in almost every corner of the country’s governmental, military, religious, economic and foreign policy affairs.
It is no coincidence that the Iranian consulate in Najaf was burned down on Wednesday. Facilities in Basra and other cities linked to ubiquitous Tehran-backed Shia militias have also been attacked. Abdul-Mahdi owed his job to Iran, which set him up in office in a compromise deal after last year’s election. When he wobbled last month, he was rescued by Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds force. By trumping Suleimani, Tehran’s most accomplished fixer, and siding with the protesters, Sistani has now sent a pointed message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Iraqis, not he, will be the ultimate arbiters of their affairs, religious and temporal. Ever since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established Iran’s revolutionary theocracy, Iran’s most senior clerics have claimed “absolute guardianship” over all 200 million Shias worldwide. Sistani, a long-time doctrinal rival, just seriously undercut that claim.
As Iraq’s latest crisis unfolds in the coming days, one of the country’s best-known public figures, the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, may provide critical political reinforcement for Sistani’s stand. His Mahdi army became notorious in the mid-2000s for violent opposition to the US occupation. But Sadr has since evolved into a nationalist-populist who rejects all foreign interference in Iraq, whether it be the Iranians, Americans or Isis’s Sunni Muslim jihadists. Sadr’s party came first in last year’s election, and he controls the largest parliamentary bloc. He has repeatedly called on the government to resign, pending new elections. That makes him a potential kingmaker when replacements for Abdul-Mahdi and his discredited ministers are sought. And it could further reduce Iran’s say in the matter.
The top priority for Iraq’s leadership, however it may be reconstituted, must be to halt the violence and promote an inclusive dialogue with younger generations that are plainly unwilling to tolerate any longer the country’s old crony politics, systemic injustices and endemic corruption. But if that vital process is to succeed, a drastic trimming of Iran’s sails, by popular demand, is essential.
To Tehran’s undoubted discomfort, this is a cry now heard across the region, most noticeably in Lebanon where another prime minister, dependent on support from Iran’s Shia allies in Hezbollah, recently succumbed to demands for reform. Nor has Iran itself, under intense US economic sanctions, been immune to domestic unrest in recent weeks. After years of Iranian regional advances, the tide appears to be turning.