Since October, protests in Iraq and Lebanon have re-energized the Middle East region as hundreds of thousands of young people descend onto public squares, repeating 2011 Arab Spring slogans that call for regime downfall. But while Iraq and Lebanon could offer great promise if protesters learn from past failures in the region, they could also prove to be bloodier if Iran gets its way.
Middle East protests that have taken hold in the past decade have had their own unique characteristics, but similarities between Iraq and Lebanon are uncanny. Both are highly segmented societies that have undergone painful sectarian civil wars. Both have power-sharing constitutions or political pacts that attempt to keep the peace by dividing spoils of the state, government roles and administrative positions, and parliamentary seats along ethno-sectarian lines. But the more ominous similarity is the well-known interference of Iran into their domestic politics.
Iran’s financial, political and military support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and for Iraq’s dominant political class in Baghdad from the Dawa party to the Hashd al-Shaabi militant group is clearly menacing. In the early days of Iraq’s protests in October, black clad snipers believed to be Iranian forces took to Baghdad rooftops to take pot shots at protesters using live ammunition; in Lebanon, unknown assailants believed to be with Hezbollah tore down protesters’ tent encampments and physically assaulted protesters in Beirut streets.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has already expressed his views on Lebanese and Iraqi protests, a reminder that Iran knows how to deploy armed forces to tamp down protests. The not-so-subtle warning was not just about how Iran cracked down on its own 2017-2018 protests against corruption and economic gloom— arresting almost 7,000 people and reacting to protests with force—but how Iran effectively propped up the Assad regime to annihilate protesters with brutal force.
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