Iran Exports Repression to Iraq

Iran’s potent admixture of military aid, bribes, and intimidation has made it the dominant power broker in Iraq, but it has also engendered a backlash by Iraqi Shi’a protestors fed up with widespread poverty and unemployment due to corruption and lack of economic reform. As protestors have increasingly turned their ire toward Iran, Tehran feels its investments to garner dominant political influence slipping away. Iran has responded to the Iraqi protest movement with the same playbook it uses for domestic unrest: repression.    

The protests gripping Iraq have witnessed tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to vent their dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an out-of-touch class of political elites, and Iran-backed militias. Too often, these forces have placed Iran’s interests over the public good, for instance steering Iraq’s oil resources to benefit Tehran while Iraq’s own citizens lack healthcare, jobs, educational opportunity, consistent electricity, and clean drinking water.

The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias, which are too powerful for the central government to disband, are particularly problematic, as they have ventured into advancing Iranian security interests at Iraq’s expense. At Tehran’s behest, these militias have been operationalized to push back against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign,  attacking U.S. personnel and energy interests in Iraq. Iran has also transferred ballistic missiles to its proxies, further undermining the central government’s monopoly on the use of force and established weapons depots in Iraq, transforming the country into a transshipment route for arms to the Assad regime in Syria. These provocations have invited reprisals from Israel, highlighting Iran’s willingness to subvert Iraq’s security for its own nefarious ends.

Iran played a key role in brokering Abdul-Mahdi’s rise to power following 2018 parliamentary elections, viewing him as a compromise between Iraqi nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr who was outspoken against both Iranian and American influence and Tehran’s preferred candidate, Hadi al-Amiri, the former head of the Badr Organization and leader of a parliamentary bloc aligned with the pro-Iran PMF. While Abdul-Mahdi paid lip service to reducing Tehran’s influence and tamping down on the PMF, his dependence on Iran, coupled with a campaign of intimidation and assassinations against critics of Iran, ensured his subservience to Tehran. The protests which have enfeebled his government have only increased his reliance on Tehran.

Notably, the Iraqi protestors are almost exclusively Shi’a, showing that Iran’s political and military maneuvering has failed to translate to winning over the hearts and minds of the core constituency it needs to continue projecting influence in Iraq. Iran has failed in its efforts to transplant its revolutionary ideology in large measure due to the potency of Iraqi nationalism and the countervailing influence of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, both of which have led protestors to call for more inclusive governance, and reject Iran’s explicit sectarianism. Iran’s failure also points at a larger systemic issue facing the Islamic Republic at home and abroad, namely, it is bad at governance.

Iran’s revolutionary ideology has failed to provide for the common welfare in Iran and so the regime relies on an iron grip to stay in power. Echoing its response to domestic protest movements, the Iranian regime has increasingly turned to repression and conspiracy-mongering in Iraq to retain its influence. The outbreak of the current round of protests triggered panic in Tehran, which quickly dispatched Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s primary power broker in Iraq, to Baghdad to advise Iraqi politicians and security officials on his best practices for quelling unrest. According to Iraqi security officials present at the meeting, Soleimani, who chaired the meeting in place of Prime Minister  Abdul-Mahdi, told those present, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests. This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”

Since Soleimani’s ominous proclamation, PMF forces and reportedly, in some instances, masked, black-clad men popularly believed to be Iranians, or at least connected to Iran, acting at times in conjunction with Iraqi security forces and at times independently, have responded with excessive and deadly force to quell demonstrations, leading to a death toll of at least 250 and thousands injured. The directive to respond to protests with live fire clearly emanated from Tehran, and numerous reports indicate that Iran-backed forces have been behind the deadliest clashes. For instance, Reuters reported that PMF elements close to Iran, reporting directly to their militia commanders rather than the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces, deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops overlooking demonstrations just days after the unrest began, killing several dozen. 

Iran’s role in suppressing the Iraqi demonstrations has made clear that Tehran, not Iraq’s central government, is truly calling the shots in Iraq. The Iraqi government has been exposed as unable to protect its own citizenry from Tehran and has been pulled along as an accomplice to Iran’s murderous machinations. The month’s unrest has also exposed the PMF’s complete subservience to Tehran. Muqtada al-Sadr, who is backing the protestors, had sought for Hadi al-Amiri to join him in calling for Abdul-Mahdi’s ouster. However, Qassem Soleimani intervened and asked for al-Amiri and his militias to continue backing Abdul-Mahdi, a request to which he promptly acquiesced.

The developments in Iraq, which have included demonstrations in front of the Iranian consulate in Karbala, have shocked the Iranian regime, which is now realizing that the political influence it has bought and coerced in Iraq has come at the cost of alienating the country’s core Shi’a constituency. Iran’s quest for domination and subversion of Iraqi interests to its own has weakened the government and impeded its ability to provide for the welfare of its citizens, leading them to turn on Tehran. While Abdul-Mahdi now appears poised to resign, the popular anger fueled by Iran is unlikely to subside in the near future, especially as Iran responds with violence. Iran, meanwhile, loath to abandon its investment in Iraq, will keep returning to its familiar playbook of repression. 

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI)