The ongoing protests on the streets of Iraq and Lebanon are about deteriorating living and economic conditions in both countries. They are also about growing resentment of Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, two of the most important regional strongholds of Iran.
Decision-makers in Tehran are closely watching what the peaceful demonstrators in both countries are saying and planning to do in the coming days. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, a protégé of the Islamic Republic with a majority of members in the cabinet of outgoing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, is out to threaten the demonstrators that their demands for reform, a new government and new legislative elections will open the door for a political vacuum. On October 25, Hezbollah Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, even warned that the protests could morph into a civil war.
However, this could not intimidate the demonstrators who moved ahead with their shows of anger against a government that has failed to make the dream of a decent life for the majority of Lebanese citizens attainable.
Almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 6 million lives in poverty, 20% lives with unimproved sanitation, and 10% with no access to drinking water. Around 36% of the Lebanese workforce is unemployed, the economic growth rate is at 0.2%, and the general debt has reached $86 billion or a staggering 150% of the country’s GDP. Almost half of spending in the Lebanese state budget goes to debt services, which means that the government has very little to spend on public services.
To make up for the gap between spending and revenues, the government has to impose huge taxes and force citizens to pay more for water and electricity, which in some of Lebanon’s cities are non-existent on almost a daily basis.
Iraq’s conditions are no better. A quarter of the population of the oil-rich country lives under the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Almost 20% of the national workforce is unemployed and the economic growth has reached 4%, but oil exports bring in more than 90% of the national income, which means that this country’s revenues are strongly connected with oil prices in international markets.
The Iraqi economy paid dearly for the occupation of some of Iraq’s cities by ISIS and the subsequent liberation war. After the war, rampant corruption and economic mismanagement meant that economic conditions would not be better in a country divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Despite these strong reasons for public anger and revolt, Iran’s influence in Iraq and Lebanon is more infuriating to the peoples of both countries. There is a growing feeling among the peoples in these Arab states that Iran is behind their calamities. There is a strong feeling also that their affairs are managed in Tehran, not in either Beirut or Baghdad.
The enormity of anger against Iran’s domination of Iraqi politics was manifest in a November 1 video of Iraqi demonstrators tearing down a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On the poster, the words “Iran out, Baghdad to be free” were written.
A day later, Khamenei accused the US and western intelligence of standing behind the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon.
He said the US and western intelligence are causing “riots” in both countries with the financial support of some “reactionary” countries. Losing Iraq and Lebanon will be a big deal for Tehran which has presence in four Arab states now, namely – apart from Lebanon and Iraq – Syria and Yemen.
This is also a big deal for Sunni Arabs who have been battling growing influence in the region for a long time now. Despite the initial successes of demonstrators in both states in maintaining their presence on the streets, even at a precious price in Iraq, Iran will not likely back down or leave either Iraq or Lebanon slide out of its control easily.
This opens the door wide for all possible bloody scenarios, especially with Iran’s zealots in both countries probably preparing for the next sectarian or civil war in them.