World, Middle East

Iran scrambled to maintain clout in protest-hit Iraq

Protesters accuse Iran of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 10.12.2019
Iran scrambled to maintain clout in protest-hit Iraq


The recent resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi against the backdrop of mass protests against his government has been greeted with caution and criticism in Iran.

Protesters accuse Iran, which has backed Abdul-Mahdi to remain in his post, of meddling in Iraq's internal affair, an accusation denied by Tehran.

Since the protests began in October, angry protesters attempted to set fire to the Iranian consulates in Iraq's holiest cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Iranian officials, for their part, have accused foreign elements of instigating chaos and instability in Iraq.

With Abdul-Mahdi now leaving his post, Iran is struggling to maintain its influence in its most important neighboring country.

Hamidreza Azizi, a university lecturer and an independent analyst, opines that two major challenges are now facing the Islamic Republic in Iraq.

"The attempts by the U.S. and Iran's regional rivals to influence the situation and direct it against Iran [in an attempt] to contain its influence in Iraq is the first key challenge," Azizi told Anadolu Agency.

"Another challenge is the possible use of the chaos by the terrorist groups to reorganize themselves and make a comeback," he said.

The analyst believes that after Abdul-Mahdi's resignation, Tehran could use its influence with Iraqi factions to ensure the election of an ally for premiership in Iraq.

"It is a fact that after the fall of [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, Iran has always tried to preserve and expand its influence in Iraq, but so have the other regional and trans-regional powers," Azizi said.

"Therefore, I think there's an exaggeration of the role of Iran (in Iraq) in order to provoke the protesters," he opined.

At least 460 Iraqis have been killed and 17,000 injured since the protests broke out early October against deep-seated corruption and poor living conditions, according to the country's High Commission for Human Rights.

Legitimate protests

Hamid Reza, who heads Peace Spirit international, an NGO, thinks that the popular anger against Iran's interference in Iraq was not based on facts.

"It is clear and natural that the Iranian and Iraqi governments have close ties, but this level of criticism and attacks against Iran are not based on any reasoning or facts," he told Anadolu Agency.

"People needed a target and enemies provided them exactly that," he argued.

Hussain Al-Amiri, an Iraqi commentator from Nasiriyah, one of the cities where protests have refused to die down, says Iran-Iraq rivalry is rooted in history, dating back to their eight-year war.

"Even though the governments of the two countries have tried to reach out to each other, people still hold grudges and that is one of the reasons why protesters have blamed Iran for meddling in Iraqi affairs," he said.

Al-Amiri thinks that the Iraqi protests against corruption, unemployment, mismanagement and lack of development are legitimate.

"Iran should back the protesters, not the corrupt government," he said. "Having said that, the Iraqi people will not come under the influence of foreign powers."

Soft power

Sadrodin Moosavi, the managing director of state-run newspaper Iran Daily, believes that Iran will use its "soft power" in the political and spiritual spheres to help normalize the situation.

"In the political arena, at the official level, Iran will advise the Iraqi officials to launch a serious anti-corruption campaign and address people's legitimate grievances,” Moosavi said.

"In the same arena, at the public level, Iran will encourage the common people through pro-Iran popular political leaders to end the violence."

In the religious arena, Moosavi said, Iran will support the stances of Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has warned of a potential civil war in Iraq if measures were not taken to ease the public anger.

At the mainstream religious level, Iran, through the network of influential Iraqi clerics close to Tehran, will try to help Iraqis unite and preserve their solidarity to protect Iraq's territorial integrity, he said.

"The influence of clergy in Iraq – especially in Najaf and Karbala – who are seen close to Iran, would ultimately work to the advantage of Iran and help overcome these turbulent times in the Iraqi-Iranian relations," Moosavi said.

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