Iran’s Hegemony Tested in Iraq, Lebanon

By Andrew Hanna

In late 2019, Iran faced challenges to its influence in Iraq and Lebanon that, for the first time in a more than a decade, weakened its hold on two countries critical to its regional ambitions. Protesters in both countries criticized Tehran’s role in their domestic politics. Iran and its allies responded with heavy-handed tactics that failed to quell the protests.

Lebanese Protests
Protesters waive the Lebanese flag

In Iraq, anti-government demonstrations morphed into a popular uprising against Iran and its proxies in October 2019. Shiite protesters attacked symbols of Iranian influence—including the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Karbala-- and decried Tehran’s meddling in their internal affairs. 


In Lebanon, protesters demanded the resignation of Iran’s allies in government. Shiite protesters, in a rare rebuke to Hezbollah, defied calls by its leader Hassan Nasrallah to abstain from the demonstrations.

The Trump administration called on both governments to address protesters’ demands. In a statement on October 29, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Lebanese security services to “ensure the rights and safety of the protesters” and urged political leaders in Beirut to form a new government. On November 1, Pompeo said Baghdad should “listen to the legitimate demands made by the Iraqi people” and demanded “genuine accountability and justice” for protesters harmed by security forces.


Iraqi Shiites turn against Iran

The protests in Iraq began on October 1 after the government dismissed Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al Saadi, the second-in-command of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service, four days earlier. He had gained fame for leading the U.S.-backed campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS control.

But Saadi also had political and military rivals in the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iranian-backed militia that had been mobilized in 2014 to fight ISIS. The PMF and its representatives in Parliament had lobbied Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi for the general’s removal. Iraqis mobilized in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on October 1 to protest his dismissal. They also chanted slogans against government corruption and economic mismanagement.

Iraqi Protests

Iraqi protests in Tahrir Square 

On October 2, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Qods Force, flew to Baghdad to urge Iraqi officials to clamp down on the demonstrations. “We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” he reportedly told Iraqi security officials. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”

Tensions boiled over on October 4 after security forces opened fire on the protesters. Unidentified snipers and masked security forces killed dozens. Demonstrations continued for several days.

On October 25, phase two of the protests erupted as the protests spread, the flashpoints escalated, and the tactics by pro-Iranian militias became deadlier. Iraqis surged back on the streets to protest Iran’s role in Iraqi domestic politics. Clashes erupted in the Shiite heartland, in southern Iraq, between the protesters and the militiamen aligned with Iran. PMF militiamen opened fired on protesters in southern Nasiriya. Later that weekend, protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Karbala, pulled down the Iranian flag and raised the Iraqi flag.

On October 29, masked gunmen killed 18 protesters and wounded hundreds in Karbala. Another 14 were killed in southern Maysan province as they stormed the headquarters of Asaib Ahl al Haq, an Iranian-aligned group that is one of dozens of militias under the PMF.

The protests triggered a challenge to the Mahdi government by major Iraqi politicos. The same day as the Karbala demonstrations, Moqtada al Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric with the largest bloc in Parliament, urged a no-confidence vote. On a visit to Baghdad, Soleimani reportedly urged Iran’s allies in parliament to back the prime minister, which triggered even more brazen anti-Iran defiance. Protesters took off their shoes and hit posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Soleimani, a sign of deep disrespect in the Arab world. In a Friday sermon on November 1, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious leader, also publicly warned Iran against interfering in Iraqi politics.


Lebanese protests target Iran’s allies

Anti-government protests in Lebanon erupted on October 17 after the government proposed new taxes, including a 20 cents-per-day tax on WhatsApp phone calls. The measures coincided with the rapid depreciation of the Lebanese pound due to a foreign exchange currency crisis.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese poured onto the streets to protest economic mismanagement and public corruption. Beirut’s ruling elites were caught off-guard. The government’s withdrawal of the tax and cuts to salaries of senior officials failed to appease the protesters, who demanded the resignation of the entire government.

Unlike past demonstrations in Lebanon, protesters throughout the country did not align with their own sectarian representatives in government. In one of the most striking rallies, protesters in southern Lebanon—a Shiite stronghold--chanted against Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of parliament, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and Iran’s most important ally in the Middle East. Protesters in the southern cities of Nabatiyeh, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre called on the government to resign. 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on October 29 left Hezbollah and its political allies to face the protesters’ wrath. President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s Christian ally, refused demands that he resign. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged his supporters not to join the protests. “We do not accept toppling the Presidency, the resignation of the government, nor early parliamentary elections,” he said on October 25. “We are protecting the country from the vacuum that will lead to chaos and collapse.”

Hezbollah and Amal have taken aggressive steps to stifle the protests. Hezbollah supporters stormed the main protest camp in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. Video of the attack went viral and drove greater antipathy among the protesters toward Hezbollah.

Amal militiamen attacked demonstrators tearing posters of Berri. Nasrallah also blamed foreign embassies for fomenting and funding the instability. “Do not believe what the embassies say because what is important is what they are doing,” he said, echoing the rhetoric from Tehran.

On October 6, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei blamed unspecified “enemies” for trying to divide Tehran and Baghdad. On October 30, he accused Arab protesters in both Iraq and Lebanon of being agents of the United States and Israel. “The U.S. and Western intelligence services, with the financial backing of reactionary countries in the region, are spreading turmoil,” he told Army cadets.

Khamenei compared the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon to the protests over economic issues in Iran in late 2017 and early 2018. “They (U.S. and Saudi Arabia) had similar plans for our dear country, but fortunately the people... came out in time and the armed forces were ready and that plot was neutralized,” Khamenei said. The Iranian protests were quashed by security forces.


Timeline of protests in Iraq

Oct. 1: More than 1,000 anti-government demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services. Many protestors waved posters of Iraq’s former counterterrorism chief, General Abdul-Wahab al Saadi, whose dismissal was blamed on Iran-backed politicians. The protests turned bloody when police used live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators.

Oct. 2: Senior commanders from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) met with Iraqi intelligence and security officials in Iraq, according to Reuters. IRGC General Qassem Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and met with top Iraqi security officials in the heavily fortified Green Zone. “We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” he told the Iraqi officials at the secret meeting. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”

Oct. 3: Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said Tehran would “strike back anywhere, including (in) Iraq,” if the United States attacked Iran. Iraq summoned Masjedi to Baghdad to denounce the threat. Masjedi is also an officer in the IRGC Qods Force.

Iran’s foreign ministry urged Iranian religious pilgrims to postpone their visits to Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Tehran called for calm and alleged the unrest was “misused by foreigners.”

Oct. 4: Snipers from pro-Iranian militias reportedly began shooting at demonstrators from rooftops. Some protestors accused the Hashd al Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of being the culprits. The PMF is made up of more than 60 militias, including several that have received arms and training from Iran. Other protestors blamed the Saraya al Khorasani militia, which is known to have close connections to Tehran.  

The snipers used radio communications equipment provided by Iran to establish a private platform for communications, a security source told Reuters. “We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces,” said an unnamed Iraqi security source. “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”

Oct. 5: Kayhan, a hardline Iranian newspaper affiliated with the supreme leader, blamed the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel for the unrest in Iraq. “There are many documents about the presence of U.S, Israeli and Saudi Wahabi agents as well as Ba'thist elements behind the Iraqi protests,” the newspaper claimed.  

Oct. 6: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed unspecified “enemies” for trying to divide Tehran and Baghdad. Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, said his government supported Iraq’s stability and economic development. “Iran is determined to reconstruct the Daesh-stricken Iraqi towns and cities in a similar way that it supported the friendly and brotherly government and people of the country during the fight against Daesh (ISIS),” he said.

Oct. 7: Iran urged restraint from the Iraqi people after six days of unrest, which left more than 100 people dead. Iraqis took to the streets to protest corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services. Some clashed with police. “Iran will always stand by the Iraqi nation and the Iraqi government. We are calling on them to preserve unity and to show restraint,” said government spokesman Ali Rabiei.

Brigadier General Hassan Karami, chief of the IRGC’s Special Unit police, said nearly 11,000 Iranian special police would be deployed to Iraq during the annual Arbaeen Pilgrimage, an important Shiite religious ceremony. Karami later specified that the units would only conduct security near the Iran-Iraq border.

Oct. 10: IRGC Spokesperson Ramezan Sharif announced that the Qods Force was cooperating with Iraqi security services and the PMF to protect Arbaeen pilgrims “on Iraqi soil.” Sharif claimed the Iraqi protests were orchestrated by Iran’s enemies to disrupt the pilgrimage and divide Tehran and Baghdad.

Oct. 17: Mohammed Ridha, the head of Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, said initial investigations revealed “deliberate killings of protesters by some elements,” implying forces not controlled by the government. He did not elaborate on who was behind the killings. 

Oct. 25: Members of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH) militia reportedly opened fire on a group of protestors trying to set fire to group’s office in the city of Nasiriya. At least six protestors were killed in the clashes.  

Oct. 26: Video circulated online showed protestors removing the Iranian flag and raising the Iraqi flag at the Iranian consulate building in Karbala province.

Oct. 29: Iraqi security forces wearing masks and black clothes attacked protesters in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Witnesses said the gunmen fired live bullets at demonstrators in the city’s Education Square, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds.  

Oct. 30: In a secret meeting in Baghdad, Soleimani, urged Hadi al Amiri, a powerful politician backed by an alliance of Shiite militias, to continue supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi, according to Reuters. Amiri reportedly changed his stance on the opposition, claiming the resignation of Mahdi would create more chaos and instability. Amiri has decades-long ties to Tehran and has described Ayatollah Khamenei as “the leader not only for Iranians, but the Islamic nation.”

Iran accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of orchestrating the protests in Iraq. “Our advice has always been to call for peace and (stopping) interference by foreign forces in these countries,” said President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi.

Nov. 3: Protestors in Iraq attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala. The demonstrators scaled concrete barriers, lobbed firebombs over the wall and replaced an Iranian flag with an Iraqi flag. Security forces opened fire on the protestors, killing three and wounding 19 others.

Nov. 6: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged the government to “engage seriously and urgently with Iraqi citizens.” Iraqi security forces dispersed protesters in central Baghdad with tear gas and live ammunition.

Nov 8: Seventeen rockets hit inside and near military bases in northern Iraq. Some of the bases contain U.S. military personnel. A U.S. counterstrike killed three, according to an Iraqi general. 

Nov 9: Iraqi security forces cracked down on protesters in Baghdad, Karbala and Basra. Five were killed by live ammunition and a sixth was mortally wounded from a tear-gas canister shot at his head. 

Nov 12: IRGC Qods Force leader Soleimani reportedly signed off on an electoral reform plan that would allow Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to remain in office until new elections next year. 

Nov. 18: The Intercept and The New York Times published 700 pages of classified Iranian intelligence cables that illustrated the depth of Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics, intelligence and the military. The documents revealed years of meticulous efforts by Iranian intelligence to cultivate spies among Iraqi officials and informants working for the United States as well as a U.S. official in Iraq. The cables also detailed “special relationships” that Tehran had with then oil minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and then foreign minister Ibrahim al Jafari. Mahdi became prime minister in October 2018. 

Nov. 27: Protesters burned down the Iranian consulate in the city of Najaf. Video on social media showed protesters scaling the consulate wall and waiving Iraqi flags. Demonstrators shouted “Out, out Iran!” as the building burned. The attack injured 35 protesters and 32 Iraqi security personnel, according to local police. The consulate was attacked earlier in November, but flames were quickly extinguished and damage to the building was limited. 


Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation after nearly two months of protests over corruption and Iran’s influence in the country. Mahdi said he would step down so that the Iraqi government could “preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation.” Tehran had used its influence to prop up Mahdi, according to leaked intelligence cables published by The Intercept and The New York Times.

Nov. 28: Iraqi security forces killed at least 25 people during a crack down on protesters in Nasiriyah, according to Amnesty International. Footage showed troops using a bulldozer and live ammunition to break through protestors’ barricade on a bridge. The national death toll surpassed 300 people since protests began on October 1, according to Amnesty.

Dec. 1: Protesters torched the Iranian consulate in Najaf for the second time in a week. The attack occurred despite Iraqi parliament’s approval of Prime Minister Mahdi’s resignation earlier that day.

Dec. 4: U.S. Intelligence reports revealed that Iran had built up a secret arsenal of short-range missiles in Iraq that could danger U.S. interests and forces in the region. Iran reportedly used Iraqi Shiite militias to transport hide the missiles in the country.

Dec. 6: David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said that Iran may have directed the attacks on Iraq’s Balad air base on December 5. Two rockets landed inside the base but did not cause any casualties or damage. “We’re waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue then there’s a good chance that Iran was behind it,” Schenker said.


Timeline of protests in Lebanon

Oct 17: Thousands of protesters filled the streets of downtown Beirut. Demonstrators chanted “the people want the downfall of the regime,” a slogan popularized during the Arab uprisings. The immediate cause of the demonstrations was the government’s proposed new taxes, including a 20 cent-per-day tax for all internet phone calls on platforms like WhatsApp. Prime Minister Saad Hariri convened a late-night meeting and withdrew the government’s tax proposal.

Oct 20: Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed to a reform package that would cut elected official salaries and overhaul the country’s electricity sector. Walid Jumblatt, an influential Druze leader, tweeted support for the reforms.

Oct 20: Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in the largest protests to sweep the country in a decade.

Oct 21: The Cabinet approved the proposed reform package but protesters continued to call for the government’s resignations. President Michel Aoun expressed sympathy for the protesters but pushed back on their accusations of corruption. The Lebanese Army foiled an attempt by Shiite militiamen to infiltrate the protest camp, according to The Daily Star.

Oct 24: President Aoun invited the protesters to talks and suggested he would consider reshuffling the government. Protesters booed the president and insisted the entire government resign before talks occur.

Oct 25: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech in which he accused the protests of being “hijacked” by “foreign embassies.” Hezbollah supporters clashed with protesters in downtown Beirut.

Oct 27: Lebanese protesters formed a 106 mile-long human chain stretching from the northern city of Tripoli to the southern city of Tyre.

Oct 28: Protesters blocked key roads in Beirut and access to the country’s main north-south highway. Lebanon’s central bank governor warned the country was on the verge of economic collapse in “a matter of days.”

Oct 29: Prime Minister Hariri resigned in response to two weeks of protests. He said his resignation was “necessary… to make a great shock to fix the crisis.”

Oct 29: Amal and Hezbollah supporters attacked the main protester camp in Beirut.

Oct 30: Protests continued despite Hariri’s resignation, with protesters calling for the resignation of the entire government. Shiite protesters chanted against Nabih Berri and Hassan Nasrallah. President Aoun asked Hariri to stay on as caretaker prime minister.

Oct 31: President Aoun addressed the nation and warned the country was at a “dangerous crossroads.” He called for a new technocratic government but did not offer any concession to the protesters.

Nov 1: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for the formation of a new government “as soon as possible.” Lebanese private banks reopened for the first time in two weeks.

Nov 3: Supporters of President Aoun rallied ahead of an anti-government demonstration in Beirut. His supporters called him a “reformist” and pushed back against calls for his resignation.

Nov 8: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said he backed a technocratic government devoid of ministers from political parties.

Nov 9: Lebanon’s grand mufti, the top Sunni Muslim authority, urged the formation of a technocratic government to meet protesters’ demands. His call was echoed by the Maronite Patriarch, the country’s top Christian religious authority.

Nov 10: Senior Hezbollah officials said they would not be forced into concessions by the protests and would support a “technopolitical” cabinet.

Nov 12: The Lebanese military shot dead an official with Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Soldiers opened fire to disperse protesters blocking a road in the Khaldeh neighborhood.

Nov 12: President Michel Aoun again rejected calls for a technocratic government saying it would not be able to govern Lebanon without political figures.

Photo Credit: Lebanese Flags by tongeron91 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: Iraqi protests in Tahrir Square by FPP [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] via Wikimedia Commons
Some of the information in this article was originally published on November 6, 2019.