Iran’s Role in Iraqi Protests

On October 1, more than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Baghdad to protest corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services. The protests also targeted growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Some protestors chanted anti-Iranian slogans, while others displayed posters of Iraq’s former counterterrorism chief, General Abdul-Wahab al Saadi, whose dismissal was blamed on Iran-backed politicians. Many activists feared Saadi’s ouster would allow a more pro-Iranian official to take his place.

The demonstrators accused Iran of making them “strangers” in their own country. “Iran controls every sector of Iraq. There are no job opportunities, no services, and yet the irony is, Iraq is a very wealthy country. Iraqis are united in wanting to see the changes that Iraq deserves. Many have been killed or injured for this cause,” said Mohammed Saad, a prominent protestor in Baghdad. Some activists reported that snipers from pro-Iranian militias were shooting at demonstrators from rooftops.

As the protests spread across Iraq, they morphed into a popular uprising against Iran and its proxies. 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. 

Iran has emerged as the most influential foreign player in Iraq since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Iran and Iraq are Shiite-majority countries that share centuries-deep cultural and religious ties — and a 900-mile border. The Islamic Republic has used these advantages to permeate Iraq’s political, security, economic, and religious spheres. Iran’s interests in Iraq are best served if the country is stable.

  • Politics: Iran has an interest in maintaining Iraq’s current political system because it ensures that Shiites, the majority of the population, play a prominent role in the government. Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were marginalized. 
  • Security: Iran fears that unrest in Iraq could allow ISIS or other Sunni extremists to take hold and eventually threaten Iran or its Iraqi allies.
  • Regional Interests: Iran wants to maintain its so-called “land bridge” extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, so that it can move forces, weapons and supplies throughout the region. Iran’s most important proxy, Hezbollah, is based in Lebanon.
  • Economy: Trade with Iraq, valued at some $12 billion annually, has gained importance as U.S. sanctions have squeezed Iran’s economy since 2018.
  • Religion: Iran wants to ensure the safety of its citizens who travel to Iraq, which is home to major Shiite holy sites that draw millions of Iranian pilgrims each year. Some two million Iranian pilgrims visit Iraq annually on the day of Arbaeen alone. The holiday concludes the mourning period for Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. His martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala was a key event in the development of Shiism.

Click here for more information about Iran’s role in Iraq.


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 Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) met with Iraqi intelligence and security officials in Iraq, according to Reuters. IRGC General Qassim Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and met with top Iraqi security officials in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

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 Qods Force, the elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for operations outside of Iran.

Iraq closed the Khesro border crossing with Iran in the eastern province of Diyala until further notice. The al Shib border crossing was also briefly closed overnight due to the unrest in Iraq.

Iran’s foreign ministry urged Iranian religious pilgrims to cancel 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 reported.  

Oct. 6: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed unspecified “enemies” for trying to divide Tehran and Baghdad

Iran’s ambassador in Baghda, 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 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 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.” He did not elaborate on who was behind the killings. 

Oct. 24: Members of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia 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 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 the city’s Education Square, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds.  

Oct. 30: Oct. 30: Qassim Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, urged Hadi al-Amiri, a powerful politician backed by an alliance of Shi'ite militias, to continue supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi during a secret meeting in Baghdad, according to Reuters. Amiri reportedly changed his stance with the opposition, claiming the resignation of Mahdi would create more chaos and instability. 

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. 7: Iranian tear gas grenades, manufactured by the Defense Industries Organization of Iran, killed at least five protestors, according to a report by Amnesty International. The report said the grenades caused charred flesh and “smoking” head wounds when fired directly at protesters. 

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.