The crossroads of uncertainty

The non-state actors, who don’t receive any external support financially nor politically, are given ample assistance in both categories.

IRANIAN PARLIAMENT speaker Ali Larijani attends a news conference at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut’s southern suburbs, as a picture of late Iranian Quds Force top commander Qasem Soleimani is seen in the background, on February 17.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
IRANIAN PARLIAMENT speaker Ali Larijani attends a news conference at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut’s southern suburbs, as a picture of late Iranian Quds Force top commander Qasem Soleimani is seen in the background, on February 17.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past few months, we’ve seen a drastic shift in The United States’ policy in the Middle East vis-à-vis Iran. For most of President Trump’s administration, the US policy toward Iran was one of economic confrontation in which the results were measured in sanctions and dollars, not bombs and arms. However, following strikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the US has dramatically changed its policy in a weekend.
While this is a huge blow to Iranian military leadership, it has larger regional ramifications. These are most consequential in Iraq, as its future stands at a crossroads. One of two scenarios are likely to occur: either the Iranian leadership will take this opportunity to cement its role in the circle of Iraqi decision-makers, or we may witness the beginning of the end of Iran’s greater regional aspirations.
To understand why Iran is at the center of the Iraqi power structure, its regional strategy needs to be comprehended. Currently, Iran’s regional strategic blueprint across the Middle East can be compared to an octopus stretching its tentacles to suck in local populations and mold them into a network of strategic assets across the region.
Using a pan-Shia approach to networking, Iran is able to prey on actors, mainly Shia populations in countries where they’ve historically been persecuted, to position itself as providers and caretakers for their struggles. Arms for loyalty is the name of the game.
This approach has been very successful, as it has created a web of direct and indirect military assets derived from Shia militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan. This is a win-win situation for both parties strategically.
The non-state actors, who don’t receive any external support financially nor politically, are given ample assistance in both categories.
This in turn enhances their capabilities and by doing so boosts their legitimacy amongst their home populations.
Iran, on the other hand, constructs a road of proxies, surrogates, and militias from its borders to the Mediterranean Sea, most significantly on the borders of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq is the key gateway in this land bridge geographically and psychologically. It is the physical connector between Iran and their Mediterranean based assets.
Additionally, the Shia militias in Iraq, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), hold immense psychological value in the pan-Shia strategy, as they’ve gained the legitimacy and trust of the Iraqi people in their successful fight against ISIS. This highlights the strength of Iran’s influence throughout the region.
The reason we are at a crossroads of Iraqi history is because we don’t know the answer to the question: How long will the PMUs’ loyalty last for the Iranian leadership without the aforementioned support?
Even though the US strategy in the Middle East has changed from an economic game of attrition to direct armed confrontation, that doesn’t change the fact that the sanctions are still crippling the Iranian economy.
Mass protests were occurring simultaneously in Lebanon and Iraq, all of which were economically motivated. Protests erupted in Iran too, and became so hostile that the Iranian minister of the interior was quoted making statements such as, “Well! Protestors were shot in the legs as well.”
Despite this forecast of doom, Iran appeared unified in solidarity at the funeral of Soleimani. But, is this a short-lived rally-around-the-flag effect, or a legitimate shift from a frustrated population to a unified one? This is the million-dollar question.
The billion-dollar question is if the same applies in Iraq. Will the militias maintain their hardcore loyalty to the ayatollahs if rials and rifles aren’t flowing to Baghdad? If this is a rally-around-the-flag effect, it will fade away in time, and an overstretched and underfunded pan-Shia crescent will collapse, just as past overstretched and underfunded empires have folded, from the Romans to the Soviets.
We are beginning to see this unfold as we witness the exchange of  fiery rhetoric, some retaliation, the downing of a commercial flight and the return of anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Lebanon as a result of current events. While some of this can be interpreted as a string of isolated incidents, it appears we have our answer to the million-dollar question: Soleimani’s funeral was a rally-around-the-flag moment.
As long as the retaliation doesn’t escalate into another prolonged conflict in Iraq, in time we should anticipate the Iraqi public to return protesting just as the Iranian and Lebanese have. The clock is ticking.

The writer is currently pursuing his BA at the IDC Herzliya as a member of the Argov Fellowship for Leadership and Diplomacy. He is a research intern at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.