Throughout history, Iran has engaged in efforts to counter Iraq’s identity, with the latter’s geographic location — bordering Persia on one side and Turkey on another — permitting it to represent the Arab world in direct conflict against Tehran and Ankara more than any other country.
Iraq was the first target of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini-engineered expansionist project, which sparked a devastating eight-year war between the two countries from 1980 to 1988. Neither country achieved substantial success during the conflict.
Iran constantly refused regional plans, including a Saudi initiative, to end the war with Iraq. However, Khomeini ultimately felt compelled to end the war and, in his own words, he had to drink from the infamous “cup of poison” when he signed the ceasefire agreement.
After this war, Iran’s political elite concluded that it would be impossible for Tehran to achieve its expansionist project through the use of the country’s regular army or by directly occupying regional countries. They also ditched a favorite Iranian motto: “The road to Jerusalem passes through Karbala,” with Iraq turning into a bulwark against Tehran’s expansionist ambitions.
What the Iranian army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps failed to do over the 15 years that followed the Iran-Iraq War was accomplished by the US army in 2003, when it militarily toppled the Baghdad regime, leading to the complete collapse of all institutions and apparatuses. This US military intervention completely transformed the region and handed Iraq over to Iran on a silver platter.
Iraq’s first-hand experience of Iran in the post-2003 era was extremely negative, particularly because of its glaring and unambiguous interference in every detail of the country’s domestic affairs. This contributed to the creation of a new generation of young Iraqis full of anger at Iran and wanting Tehran to end its interference in their affairs.
Many Iraqi cities, including Shiite-majority ones such as Najaf, Karbala and Basra, have turned into the centers of popular youth-led movements against Iran’s violations of Iraq’s sovereignty.
As resentment against Iran has grown across Iraq, Iranian diplomatic missions have faced attacks and protesters have burned Iranian flags and chanted slogans such as “Iran… out, out.”
The Iranian regime has failed to control Iraq through the use of soft power; instead it has depended on the exercise of hard power through establishing proxy political factions and ideologically immersed sectarian militias, as well as planting assassination cells. In Iraqi cities like Najaf, resentment among young Shiites is so high that a favorite insult is simply to call one’s opponent an “Iranian.”
Because of Iran’s explicitly negative role in Iraq — along with the cultural and linguistic differences and historical hostility between the two countries — it is unlikely that Iraq’s youth will voluntarily accept being subject to Tehran’s control over their destiny.
In light of the above, it is quite understandable why certain Iraqi parties, factions and militias that are loyal to Iran and defend its interests suffered losses in this month’s parliamentary elections, despite all the pressure exercised by the IRGC, Iran’s ambassador, Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and other Iranian allies.
The aforementioned Iraqi anger at Iran was expressed via the October 2019 anti-government protests that were led by patriotic young Iraqis who wanted their homeland to be free and independent. They demanded that the Iraqi government’s primary focus must be on national interests and fighting all forms of corruption. The protesters were angry at the government dismissing their demands, such as for job creation, improving living standards, and ending the proliferation of weapons outside state control. The last of these demands targeted Iranian militias and allies that undermined the state by carrying and using their own weapons.
Despite the brutal crackdown unleashed against the peaceful protesters — including killings, torture, kidnappings and displacement — the protest movement is still alive, but it is now waiting to see whether the next Iraqi government will respond positively to its demands. If its demands are once again dismissed or treated with indifference, it is highly likely that extensive popular protests will flare up once again, but this time they are likely to be much more dangerous, as the protesters will direct their anger against the Iraqi political system, calling for a revolution against it. Iran and its affiliates in Iraq prefer not to even think of such a scenario playing out in the country.
It seems that the popular train rejecting Iranian hegemony in Iraq is going full steam ahead and is not likely to stop. Indeed, Iran’s efforts to stop it are doomed, especially since the discontent against it is not limited to Iraq, but has also spilled over into Lebanon, with more and more Lebanese wanting to end Hezbollah’s control over the country, which has led to political paralysis and Iranian interests prioritized over Lebanon’s.
If a new wave of protests against Iran builds up steam in Iraq, we may soon see the youth in Sanaa, Taiz and Saada move against the Houthis, who are linked to Tehran.
The collapse of Iranian hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen will come from within these territories. The region’s countries and the international community must focus on supporting the young people who seek national sovereignty and independence from external actors, especially Iran, which has consistently interfered in the national affairs of other countries and worked to subjugate them with its sectarian geopolitical plan.