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Iranian interests in the region face risks that have worried the Iranian leadership. According to the New York Times, Iranian concerns are centered in Lebanon and Iraq, which are witnessing a mass movement against corruption and government deficits.
The report’s author, Farnaz Fasaihi, says the Iranian establishment often expresses its discontent with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel as the greatest threat, but Iranian leaders have turned their attention to two new concerns, Lebanon and Iraq. Massive demonstrations in these two countries were characterized by some form of hostility to the Islamic Republic, endangering their interests and increasing the likelihood of similar demonstrations in Iran itself.
Iran’s concern was evident from a visit to Iraq by the Quds Force’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, to help counter the new uprising.
The success of the protesters by changing the government of the two countries and toppling the political systems linked to Iran, Tehran will be the loser for decades of political, financial and military investment that made it the dominant forces in the Middle East.
On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is respected by some in Iraq and Lebanon, denounced the demonstrators, revealing his fears of the dangers posed by the demonstrations. Iran also announced the closure of a number of border crossings with Iraq for passengers and goods. Khamenei accused the United States and Western intelligence agencies and the money provided by some regional states to create chaos in the region.
“I advise Lebanon and Iraq to have the priority to stand up to these security threats,” he said.
Iranian media have portrayed events in both countries in a negative way. Commentators in the official and conservative press have described events in the two countries as “fitna,” the same term used to describe anti-government demonstrations in 2009 and 2017. Some commentators have suggested that US, Israeli and Saudi agitators have stirred up the turmoil to weaken Iran and create divisions within the region’s two allies.
However, Iranian officials are aware of the infectious power of the demonstrations in the Iranian neighborhood and the possibility of their movement inside, especially as there is a participation in the grievances between Iraqis, Lebanese and Iranians against the ruling institutions in their country. The recent wave of protests in Iran has been rooted, like the current demonstrations in the Arab world, with the economy, unemployment and frustration with government corruption.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has shown a tendency to resign if a mechanism is in place to keep the government stable. Two days earlier, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation. There are no signs of a decline in demonstrations in the coming days.
“The Iranian leadership views the protests as an existential threat,” says Joseph Bahod, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. “But they have a lot of cards to play before resorting to violence to crush them.”
Khamenei said he had ordered Iranian forces to be on alert, perhaps suggesting that he wanted proxies from Tehran in Iraq and Lebanon to confront the demonstrators. Lebanese Hezbollah and several Shiite militias operate under the supervision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Analysts say Iran may use a number of tactics. In Lebanon, it will divide the demonstrators and remove the two Shiite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, from protests demanding a change in the entire political structure of the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has called on his supporters to stay away from the demonstrations, but like Khamenei, he accused foreign parties of being behind them.
Hezbollah will rely on provocation. On Thursday, civilian uniforms described as Hezbollah supporters attacked the tents of the protesters and tried to disperse them by force, as the number of demonstrators has since fallen. With Hariri’s resignation, there is an opportunity for a political vacuum if a successor government is not formed.
Iraq is a more complicated case for Iran than Lebanon. Hence the importance of Soleimani’s visit to Baghdad a while ago to help the government confront the uprising. Soleimani is known for his frequent visits to Iraq and his strong ties with militia and party leaders.
Shiite cities where militias have bases, such as Karbala, have seen bloody clashes. Unlike Lebanon, criticism of Iran was apparent in Iraq, the Iranian flag was burned at the demonstrations, while demonstrators distorted pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei and attacked the headquarters of militias backed by the Revolutionary Guards.
Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr joined demonstrators in Najaf, where the Iraqi flag was covered and demanded the resignation of the government. Iranian officials and hardline commentators have openly criticized the demonstrators as puppets in the hands of the West, attacking Sadr as “volatile, uncontrolled and parasitic.”
Hussein Shariat Madari, editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper and a senior adviser to Khamenei, wrote, calling on demonstrators to march toward the Saudi and US embassies. While commentator Hamid Reza Zandi to burn the US and Saudi flags in response to the uprising.
Analysts say Iran is known to support selective uprisings in the Arab world if it supports its ideology. During the Arab Spring, Iran supported demonstrators against the governments of Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, but stood with Syria and played a role in protecting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“Khamenei, who has invested in the region financially and militarily, will not allow demonstrators to weaken Iranian hegemony at all costs,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.