Iran and proxies encounter the costs of its imperialism

So great has been the wave of anger and violence against the operating arms of Iranian power in Shi’ite Iraq the headquarters of two major pro-Iranian militias were evacuated and closed by the police

Demonstrators take part in a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Iraq (photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
Demonstrators take part in a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Iraq
Three weeks after the latest round of protests and violence in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran is beginning to learn that imperialism in a world of mass politics and protest has unintended costs.
By far the most jolting to the Iranian regime were the recurrent attacks in the past couple of days against the headquarters of pro-Iranian militia headquarters in Iraq’s southern provinces, which are populated almost exclusively by Shi’ites, whom the pro-Iranian Iraqi government supposedly represents.
Their protests contrast sharply with the quiet prevailing in Anbar, the exclusively Sunni province in Iraq’s northeast. Since the rise of the Shi’ites to power in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam, it has been the epicenter of revolt against the predominantly Shi’ite governments that have ruled Iraq since 2003. The Sunnis – living under the harsh tutelage of the Iranian-led Shi’ite militias, who have occupied the areas in their fight against ISIS – are obviously too cowed to join the protests dominated by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority in the South.
So great has been the wave of anger and violence against the operating arms of Iranian power in Shi’ite Iraq that in Karbala, one of the two holiest Shi’ite cities in Iraq, the headquarters of two major pro-Iranian militias – Asaib ahl al-Haq and Badr – were evacuated and closed by the police as a preventive measure. More recently, demonstrators tried targeting the Iranian consulate in the city protected by thick contiguous cement pillars.
The reasons behind closing the headquarters were two-fold – to protect the members of the organization but, even more so, the demonstrators. In attacks on other militia sites, the Iranian-backed militias reacted with live fire, increasing the number of casualties, which in turn inflamed passions and the increased the number of protesters. By contrast, the police – an arm of the Iraqi state – tried controlling the protest by responding with non-lethal means: typically, tear gas and rubber batons.
In Lebanon, most of the attacks have been unidirectional, with Hezbollah sympathizers (or actual members) attacking the demonstrators rather than the other way round. This asymmetry reflects the lethal balance of power in Lebanese society in which Hezbollah – rather than the army – has been the most powerful military organization in the country for over a generation, which cows the national army.
COMMON TO both countries is the reason behind the anger against Iran and its local proxies. Both the militias in Iraq and Hezbollah have been increasingly milking their governments to maintain themselves. In Iraq, a law was passed integrating these militias into the federal army, making their members beneficiaries of the same salaries and benefits enjoyed by army soldiers.
The aim of the law was to bring an end to the phenomenon of non-state militias. The outcome, given the considerable pressure exerted by Iran and the militias themselves, was exactly the opposite. Not one militia was dismantled.
In Lebanon, the problem is of more recent vintage. Until lately, Iran and Hezbollah, in Nasrallah’s own words, completely relied on Iranian financial support and fueled the Lebanese economy. Lebanon has almost always been a country whose citizens live beyond their means, thanks to money sent by the large Lebanese diaspora; from oil-rich states vying for power in this small but strategic country; and ample aid from the European Union and member states – especially France, whose historical ties to the Maronites, the largest Christian sect in the country, is well known.
This is why taxation rates in Lebanon have always hovered between 10%-20% of state expenditures – half the rate of countries on a similar level of development and even less than half in comparison to developed states.
The previous set of sanctions against Iran in 2012 led to a decline of oil exports from 2.2 million barrels to less than a million and further led to a sharp decline in the allocations to Hezbollah, exactly at a time when the organization’s financial needs increased to fight in the Syrian civil war. Joining the government, and securing control over the Lebanese Ministry of Health and milking its budget, served as a partial solution.
US President Donald Trump’s sanctions, since 2017, have been even more painful to Iran, for the simple reason that the price of oil has been on average little more than half of what it was in the previous round of sanctions ($110 a barrel compared to $55 since 2017). The ability of the Iranian regime to subsidize its Hezbollah proxy must have declined considerably.
The Iranians are learning the same lessons the Western empires did after World War II. Mass participation in protests – which, even in the best of times, rarely bore economic dividends to the citizens of the home country – only serves to increase the costs of imperialist policies.
The danger is hardly the protests in Iraq and Lebanon. Hezbollah and Iranian-led militias in Iraq have all the guns they need and the resolve to use them against defenseless protesters in Lebanon, Najaf and Karbala.
What does worry the Iranian political elite, from Ayatollah Khamenei downwards, is the potential linkage between these protests and the recurrent protests taking place in Iran itself against the leadership’s imperialist policies to the detriment of its own citizens’ welfare – either due to the direct costs of subsidizing its proxies or to the considerable direct and indirect costs of American sanctions.
Ironically, for the theocratic regime in Iran, the most palpable link between the two populations of Iraq and Iran lies in the mass pilgrimages of Iranians to the holy cities in Iraq. Both sides mutually reinforce their perception that they share a common plight – a regime that plays a harsh and violent hand in the region at their expense.
The writer is a professor in the Departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University.