The United States and Iran Readjust to New Realities in Iraq and Lebanon

In the past 15 years, the United States and Iran have battled over influence in Iraq and Lebanon. In October, this cold war reached a milestone with protests across the two countries rebuking decades of corruption, unemployment, inefficient public services, and government paralysis. The latter issue, in particular, has been increasingly driven in the last few years by the US-Iran showdown. Washington and Tehran now have different approaches toward these uprisings, but they remain unwilling to confront or to let go of their respective allies in Baghdad and Beirut.

How Similar Are the Protests in Iraq and Lebanon?

There are certain similarities in what we are witnessing in the two countries. A frustrated new generation is standing up against a corrupt system that has been mired in internal political infighting fueled by the US-Iran rivalry. The Trump Administration’s sanctions on the Iranian regime, as well as Iran’s advancement of its own interests, remain major barriers for sound economic policies in Iraq and Lebanon. Protesters in both countries are expressing nationalistic sentiments while using similar social media and communications skills as well as civil disobedience techniques.

Protests in Iraq came in two waves in October—in the first week of the month before they were renewed on October 24—and that was one week after Lebanon’s protests began on October 17. As a result of public pressure, there is now a political vacuum in the positions of prime minister in both countries, a move Iran unsuccessfully sought to prevent. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned on November 29 (a day after 50 protesters were killed) and his resignation was approved by the parliament on December 1, a little over a year after taking office in October 2018. Exactly one month earlier, on October 29, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, 12 days after the protests began and nearly three years after taking office in December 2016. Iran’s allies in Baghdad and Beirut want to restore the power-sharing formula that predated these protests; however, the protesters and the politicians excluded from this formula are resisting such a move, each for their own reasons. While protests in both countries have been mostly leaderless, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has played a role in calling for general strikes and peaceful protests.

As a result of public pressure, there is now a political vacuum in the positions of prime minister in both countries, a move Iran unsuccessfully sought to prevent.

Both US and Iranian officials have been vocal on these protests, trying to advance their own narratives. The Trump Administration has interpreted the protests as a challenge to Iranian influence while the Iranian regime is blaming the United States for at least exploiting, if not driving, them.

On October 30, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei advised Iraqi and Lebanese authorities to “remedy the insecurity and turmoil created in their countries by the US, the Zionist regime, some western countries, and the money of some reactionary countries,” while simultaneously noting in remarks that “the people of Iraq and Lebanon have some demands that are rightful, but they should know these demands can only be realized within the legal framework of their countries.”

In return, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on November 5 that the Iraqi and Lebanese peoples “are discovering that the Iranian regime’s top export is corruption, badly disguised as revolution.” He also noted on December 2 that Abdul-Mahdi resigned “because the people were demanding freedom and the security forces had killed dozens and dozens of people. That’s due in large part of Iranian influence.” As for Lebanon, he opined that “they want Hezbollah and Iran out of their country, out of their system as a violent and repressive force.”

What Differentiates Iraq from Lebanon?

These statements are translated into measures regarding the management of the use of violence and the prospects of political negotiations. It has become clear that Washington and Tehran have more at stake in Iraq than in Lebanon, hence protests in the former have turned more violent, with Iran encouraging its allies to hang on to the status quo. Indeed, more forceful and aggressive measures were taken against Iraqi protesters. At least 460 dead and 25,000 injured have been reported to date in Iraq. While three protesters were killed in Lebanon so far, only one was shot by orders from a commander in military intelligence—he was subsequently charged with his bodyguard, who had pulled the trigger.

Allies of Iran in Iraq have been vocal on the need to suppress protesters. Iran’s supporters in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, have been accused of attacking protesters. PMF chairman Faleh al-Fayyad expressed his readiness to intervene to prevent “a coup d’état or rebellion” if the government asks. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been warning of foreign intervention and economic collapse while its supporters were involved in assaulting protesters in downtown Beirut and south Lebanon. Iran seems more invested in dealing with Iraq; Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly visited Baghdad several times since the start of the protests. Hezbollah seems to have relative autonomy in Lebanon to deal with the popular uprising.

US allies in both countries have been endorsing the protesters’ demands even though they are part of the political establishment that led to the current crisis. At first, the Trump Administration was cautious not to publicly engage in the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, but over time the rate of US intervention has increased. The Trump Administration is using three available policies with limited success because of rapidly evolving political dynamics: leveraging US aid, making public statements, and imposing US sanctions. On December 6, Washington sanctioned figures in the PMF including the Asaib Ahl al-Haq chief Qais al-Khazali, which led to protests against this decision. On December 13, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Lebanese businessmen who are believed to be top donors to Hezbollah. Moreover, US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) reportedly intervened to release $105 million in US military assistance to the Lebanese Army; Pompeo followed suit and released $115 million of economic aid to Lebanon. There are two views inside the Trump Administration on this issue: the first one prevails in the White House and is keen on tying US aid to the Lebanese state with meeting US demands regarding Hezbollah; and the second one prevails at the State Department and the Pentagon, advocating the use of US aid as leverage instead of disengaging from Lebanon at a critical time. In Iraq’s case, the Trump Administration linked expanding US assistance to “a credible government that is interested in serving the people, not political parties or other countries’ agenda.”

At first, the Trump Administration was cautious not to publicly engage in the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, but over time the rate of US intervention has increased.

Both the Iraqi and Lebanese militaries vowed to protect protesters; however, they often fell short when paramilitary groups sought to become involved in quelling the demonstrations. US military assistance to the two armies in the past 10 to 15 years was crucial in securing their relative neutrality, regardless of the Trump Administration’s objective to challenge the Iran-backed status quo. While there has been confidence in the Lebanese military leadership, which is traditionally independent from the political class, the same confidence in the military did not exist in Iraq. The commander of Iraq’s military operations in Baghdad, Lieutenant General Qays al-Mahmadawi, was sacked1 on December 8 in conjunction with accusations that he failed to protect protesters after gunmen stormed al-Khilani square and shot protesters on December 6. Unlike in Lebanon, where staffing decisions are traditionally made by the military chief, in Iraq the defense minister has the final say on military staffing.

The US-funded security forces and armies in both Iraq and Lebanon have clashed with protesters in an attempt to suppress them. Iraqi security forces used rubber bullets and even live ammunition on demonstrators, while Lebanese security forces were mostly restrained until recently. During December 14-15,  Lebanese security forces, including those under the command of the interior minister (who is a member of Hariri’s political party), used forceful measures to intimidate protesters ahead of parliamentary consultations this week to name a new prime minister. The protesters in Iraq and Lebanon have been steadfast and resilient. Massive demonstrations last weekend challenged the political class’s insistence on offering traditional and controversial names to lead the governments—instead of fresh and independent technocrats, as protesters have demanded.

The May 2018 parliamentary elections in both Iraq and Lebanon did not give a single coalition a clear win of a majority of seats. Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, however, had a more difficult time than Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Lebanon’s premier came to power in October 2016 by a political deal that predates US-Iran tensions, while Abdul-Mahdi came to power as tensions began to grow between Washington and Tehran in October 2018. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s fortunes fell when he was unable to balance the US-Iran rivalry, or when he favored the United States. Under Abdul-Mahdi’s government, Iraq signed agreements2 with Iran, which mostly favored Tehran to help overcome the American effort to put an end to its oil exports.

Maintaining the status quo would give Iran more leeway to reproduce a power-sharing formula that would appease Hariri in Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq

Unlike Abdul-Mahdi in Iraq, Hariri has no serious competition in Lebanon among the Sunni political class and Hezbollah is accommodating his demands, whether he wants to serve as premier or name someone else he supports. Maintaining the status quo would give Iran more leeway to reproduce a power-sharing formula that would appease Hariri in Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq; however, the protesters are now a new force that has to be reckoned with as they are setting the bar for expectations regarding how they want to be governed.

Why Do US-Iran Dynamics Matter?

While Lebanon remained relatively stable and secure, Iraq witnessed rounds of violence partially driven by the implications of the US-Iran rivalry. The Iranian consulate was burned three times in southern Iraq. On December 3, five rockets fell within al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province in western Iraq where US forces are stationed. There were reports about Iran using the so-called “suicide drones” that carry explosives near US military personnel in the Middle East.

Against this background of escalating tensions and competition, however, it was not all bad news for the US-Iran rivalry. Trump has been mostly mute on the protests inside Iran as his top priority remains preventing military escalation and reaching a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran. For the first time in three years, this potential breakthrough seems attainable given that Khamenei’s rule is under severe economic pressure resulting from US sanctions. Further, Trump is facing impeachment procedures with no landmark achievement in foreign policy ahead of his reelection bid. Trump leaves Pompeo to speak loudly on Iran, while the White House has been using back channels with Tehran, which resulted in a prisoners’ exchange on December 7. The US president tweeted then, “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”

However, there seems to be no consensus on whether this prisoners’ exchange will lead to something more substantial.  Both Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US special representative for Iran Brian Hook signaled willingness to expand this route of prisoner exchange. This came after the Iranian regime acknowledged for the first time in 13 years that the retired FBI agent Robert Levinson is in Iranian custody. However, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted that he would be ready for talks with the Trump Administration one hour after the United States lifts its sanctions, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said this prisoner exchange would not likely lead to negotiations between Tehran and Washington. There is a similar divide on this issue between Trump and his administration that is reluctant to engage Tehran at this point.

Iran has more to lose if there were no breakthrough in the next few weeks ahead of the US presidential elections campaign; hence, whatever happens between Washington and Tehran will have impact on Iraq and Lebanon.

Iran has more to lose if there were no breakthrough in the next few weeks ahead of the US presidential elections campaign; hence, whatever happens between Washington and Tehran will have impact on Iraq and Lebanon. Such impact could mean either extending the intensified competition or reaching an acceptable deal that stabilizes the two countries, at least in the immediate term. Iraq seems the most urgent matter as the country’s President Barham Salih, under constitutional guidelines, had until December 15 to announce the name of the new prime minister. There are no such constitutional deadlines in the case of Lebanon.

Simply put, US allies want a technocrats’ government that pushes Iranian allies out, while Iran’s allies seek a mixture of technocrats and politicians to ensure their influence persists in the respective cabinets. Facing this impasse, the caretaker governments in Baghdad and Beirut could potentially last for a long time. There are no credible political leaders in either country who are ready to effectively manage a crisis of such proportions. Meanwhile, protesters continue to seek the overhaul of the current political systems that encourage corruption and invite foreign influence.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.