The Middle East is currently witnessing the first examples of popular rebellion in countries dominated by Iran. In the very different contexts of Iraq and Lebanon, the protests now under way have a similar focus on political and economic corruption, mismanagement, and limited popular access to power and resources. In both cases, despite this focus, the demonstrators are being confronted with the fact of the domination of their country by an outside-imposed structure.
In Iraq, demonstrations began on October 1. The protests took place in Baghdad, and rapidly spread to a number of cities in the southern part of the country, including Nasiriya, Diwaniya, Babil, Wasit, Muthanna, and Dhi Qar governorates. The immediate cause was the firing by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of a popular general, Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, from his post as deputy commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service.
Saadi's firing, however, was from the outset redolent of broader issues. A Baghdad Shia himself, Saadi is known for his anti-sectarian positions and professionalism. The CTS, in which he served, is a force established and trained by the Americans. His removal from his position was thus widely interpreted as an effort by the Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to rid itself of a potential rival.
So while the focus of the demonstrations rapidly shifted to economic and social issues – in particular lack of access to affordable housing for young people – from the outset the issue of the unelected and unaccountable Iranian power that lies at the heart of governance in Iraq was implicitly present.
One demonstrator, 28-year-old Moussa Rahmatallah of Baghdad, described this process in an interview published by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. "The problem was community and economic issues, but it got bigger now. Now, the main demand and call from the demonstrations is that they want the regime to fall."
This, of course, is the old slogan that echoed through the public squares of Arab states during the short-lived "Arab Spring" of 2010-11. But there is a significant difference. In Ben Ali's Tunisia, Mubarak's Egypt, Assad's Syria and so on, it was clear what the regime was. Iraq, however, has a formal system of democracy, a parliament, regular elections. So what is the "regime" that Rahmatallah and his fellow demonstrators were referring to?
One demonstrator expressed it in the following terms in a Facebook post: "Democracy alone while the country is being looted is not enough! What is the use of being able to participate in an election, while seeing militias intimidate the actual winners 'cause of threat of a civil war or whatever, and then allow them to have much greater control over the government?!"
Iran and its allies appear similarly in no doubt that the "regime" in question (the Arabic word "nizam" also translates, perhaps more appropriately here, as "system") is the one whereby within the structures of formal democracy, Tehran maintains its own independent political and military power structure, against whose decisions there is no appeal.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, Iran maintains an independent power structure amid formal trappings of democracy.
That the Iranians are convinced in this regard may be gauged not by statements but, rather, by deeds. From the beginning, the armed power of the Shia militias has been mobilized alongside, and in cooperation with, the official security forces of the state, with the intention of brutally suppressing the demonstrations. Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani flew into Iraq on October 2, to coordinate the operation, according to a report by The Associated Press.
The result is that in just four weeks of demonstrations, over 250 demonstrators have lost their lives. An October 17 Reuters report detailed the process in which snipers belonging to Iran-backed militias were deployed on rooftops in areas where protests were taking place, with orders to shoot to kill. The operation, according to Reuters, was directed by one Abu Zeinab al-Lami, a senior official of the PMU closely linked to Iran. Iraqi security sources quoted by Reuters claimed that the snipers were "reporting directly to their commander [presumably Lami, or Soleimani] instead of to the commander in chief of the armed forces."
The precise chain of command, and the extent of collusion remain disputed. But the role of the IRGC-linked forces as the cutting edge of the attempt to crush the protests is clear.
The situation is continuing to escalate and no end is in sight. On Wednesday, live fire was used against protesters in the iconic Shia city of Kerbala. Eighteen people were killed. Iraqi sources say that the Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Ktaeb Hezbollah militias were active in the city. The largest demonstrations are taking place in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.
In the different conditions of Lebanon, an essentially similar dynamic is under way. A protest initially concerned with opposing new taxes on tobacco, petrol and Internet phone services rapidly escalated into a generalized challenged to the entrenched and deeply corrupt political order of the country.
The grievances of the protesters are socioeconomic. They are not directed specifically against Hezbollah and its Iranian masters. The protesters want the current coalition of corrupt, entrenched sectarian interests replaced by a government of technocrats. They are motivated by Lebanon's dire economic state, its massive unemployment and its soaring national debt.
But as it turns out, this current order is to the liking of the Iranian structure, which is the true ruler in Lebanon. It affords the convenient administrative cover beneath which Hezbollah is able to preserve its own power undisturbed. Consequently, since October 20, when Hassan Nasrallah first spoke against the protests, and with increasing force after October 25, Hezbollah and Amal thugs have been harassing the demonstrations and seeking to provoke violence.
As of now, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has tendered his resignation. The demonstrators have vowed to stay in the streets. They are demanding a government of "experts" and the abolition of the Lebanese sectarian political system, which enables the entrenched elites, whom they hold responsible for the current economic malaise. As the true decision-maker, it is now Hezbollah's move, with regard to the new government to be assembled.
The essential point, in both the Iraqi and Lebanese cases, is that any protest or public manifestation must eventually pose the question of power – namely, who decides? and is there a right of appeal? In both the Lebanese and Iraqi situations, once the decorations, fictions and formalities are stripped away, the protesters are faced with an unelected, armed, utterly ruthless political-military structure which is the final decider and wielder of power in the country. This structure, in turn, is controlled from Iran, via the mechanism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Iran's regional bloc is less a 'resistance axis" than a colonial system.
Iran, in its rhetoric, likes to call its regional bloc the "Resistance Axis." The notion is that it is bringing together oppressed and authentic regional forces against the machinations of the US, Israel and their puppets. In reality, as current events in Iraq and Lebanon are showing, the Iranian system most resembles a colonial one, in which the ability of local populations to decide for themselves disappears, and an Iran-controlled structure places itself in rule over them. This rule is then conducted in a manner intended to benefit Tehran, with indifference to the economic and other interests of the subject population.
The subjects in Iraq and Lebanon are now in revolt against this system. It is not at all clear, however, whether they have the means available to issue it a serious challenge.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.