Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on December 4 about the mass protests that have taken place against Iraq's Iranian-backed regime since the last week of October and the need for an international response.
According to Pregent, the distinguishing features of the protests in Iraq, like those in Iran-dominated Lebanon and Iran itself, are that they are largely leaderless and animated by the government's economic mismanagement and corruption.
In Iraq, which is blessed with abundant oil revenue and faces no crippling economic sanctions, outrage over government failure is particularly acute: "Basically, the complaint is that a country that can export 3.6 million barrels of oil a day cannot provide clean water, electricity, internet and jobs to a community that it's taken for granted."
Unlike in Lebanon, the protestors squarely place the blame for their misery on Iran, said Pregent:
These are Shia youth protesting against the status quo; protesting against the Shia religious parties tied to Iran [and] blaming Iran for Iraq's inability ... to manage its economy. Basically, [the protesters are] protesting politicians [who] are more beholden to Tehran than the Iraqi people.
Although Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric and politician whose militia forces control the Baghdad slums where the largest protests have originated, has tried to assume leadership of the movement – reportedly with Saudi funding – Pregent clarified that the protests have "nothing to do with al Sadr" and even less with his militant anti-Western ethos.
[Al Sadr] tried to hijack the protest movement only to be rejected by the Shia youth. ... They want a movement based on economic rights of prosperity [and] opportunities. They want to see Western investors, professors, entrepreneurs and tech people instead of people in uniform and diplomats."
The Iranian power structure is centered around four "kingmakers" tied to Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC), who "decide who the prime minister will be by using heavy-handed tactics, bribes, [and] threats": former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki; Hadi al-Amiri, leader of Badr Corps; Qais Khazali, leader of the Asai'b Ahl Al-Haq militia; and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who heads the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Committee (Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi) and Kataib Hezbollah militia, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. "It doesn't matter who the prime minister is ... as long as these four individuals remain influential," says Pregent.
In principle, the U.S. has enormous influence in Iraq. "We [the U.S.] are the guarantors for all of those loans ... going into Iraq's construction," says Pregent. "We have a lot of tools, ... smart power and soft power to use ... to put pressure on Baghdad." Unfortunately, these tools haven't been used effectively, he says.
Part of the problem appears to be ignorance of and denial about Iran's role in the country. Al-Muhandis "is a designated terrorist," he notes, but "anytime I ask a State Department official, defense official or intel official, that stumps them. That shouldn't be the case." High turnover among American officials dealing with Iraq contributes to the problem:
There's a new American every year. That's the benefit that these Iraqi politicians have ... they develop the playbook. ... There is no institutional knowledge that's being captured on the American side. ... So, it's very easy for the lucky politicians tied to Tehran to be able to tell new Americans in an English accent, ... '[We] just need more American money and more American training equipment and we'll get it sorted out in the future.' That's the tactic. To wait [it] out until you get the next American.
Half-measures aren't likely to be effective in Iraq. "I'm concerned that the West will be happy if there is another prime minister that appears to be moderate," says Pregent. "This status quo response ... is just not going to work with Iraqis this time as long as those individuals that I mentioned earlier still maintain power."
Specifically, the U.S. "should name those individuals in Iraq in charge of the Ministry of the Interior through [Amiri's] Badr Corps, and also the militias" and expand its Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to include the IRGC and its proxies. "It doesn't mean we have to start targeting them, but the message would be loud and clear," says Pregent.
"You have to do more than just say you're behind something."
Pregent suggests that, without further action, mere rhetorical support for those resisting Iran could do more harm than good. "Anything that allows Tehran to say, 'This is an Israeli, Saudi, U.S. operation to back saboteurs,' is something we should stay clear of." He cited the example of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared the establishment of an interim government earlier this year that gained widespread diplomatic support from the West, but little else. "[W]hen Guaido came to our attention. We said 'we support Guaido.' We thought that would be enough." But Guaido's campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro has since faltered. "You have to do more than just say you're behind something."
Pregent emphasized the unique strategic opportunity to counter Iran's pursuit of regional hegemony by disrupting a critical link in its much-vaunted land bridge from Tehran to Lebanon. "The best thing about that land bridge is ... protesters are occupying it in Iraq," and "the people that are protesting are willing to die for change."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.