Iraq is in a state of economic and political freefall, made infinitely worse by Tehran’s determination to exploit its neighbor’s woes for its own benefit. With its own economy in a disastrous state, Iran has buried its fangs into Baghdad, as well as Beirut and Damascus, in a fatal and unrelenting death grip; determined to drag its neighbors down with it.
Having been paralyzed by months of mass protests, followed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) shutdown, Iraq has been disproportionately impacted by the recent decline in oil prices. In a nation dependent on oil for 90 percent of its revenues, a huge proportion of these funds are corruptly creamed off at various stages, with only a diminishing fraction benefiting the public.
About 30 percent of the workforce is dependent on the state for income. Unions report tens of thousands of public sector workers already going several months without pay. Yet savage pay cuts and layoffs are touted as inevitable, just a few weeks after authorities pledged to create thousands of new public sector jobs to appease protesters. “Next month, we won't be able to secure half of the salaries,” warned prominent politician Adnan Al-Zurfi. “This means that you will experience true suffering.” Nevertheless, one segment of the budget nobody expects to suffer is the $2.16 billion earmarked for the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS).
According to economist Basim Entiwan, “all productive sectors have been suspended. There is no industry, no tourism, no transportation... We are seeing a nearly complete paralysis of economic life.” With many already reduced to begging on street corners, it is unclear how the high proportion of families who have lost all sources of income will feed themselves in the coming months.
Yet matters could still get worse: The US has again granted Iraq a waiver for purchasing Iranian electricity and gas, but this time for just 30 days. State Department officials warn that such waivers will cease if Baghdad doesn’t act immediately to halt the smuggling of Iranian oil through the port of Umm Qasr, along with extensive money laundering operations via Iraqi front companies.
Given Iraq’s leadership vacuum and the unlikelihood that Tehran will allow the cessation of these crucial sources of revenue, the only surprise is that the Trump administration has put off imposing crippling economic measures against Baghdad for so long. Some parts of the US government may relish the prospect of an excuse to impose sanctions as a means to remove Iraq from the global oil market and halt cratering oil prices.
With its political system plagued by chronic and unrelenting Iranian meddling, Baghdad is suffering from a crisis of leadership. Former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was never more than a puppet for the sectarian Shiite elements that put him in power. Abdul Mahdi’s impotent response to the mass protests, during which well over 600 citizens were killed (mostly at the hands of Iran-sponsored militias), blew away any remaining grains of credibility. A succession of three prime ministerial candidates has since been designated in as many months.
The most recent failed candidate, Al-Zurfi, who was seen as antagonistic toward the militias, was thoroughly undermined by a campaign of hostile propaganda by Iran-funded media outlets, which portrayed him as an American stooge.
Following a flurry of visits to Baghdad by senior Iranian officials such as Esmail Ghaani and Ali Shamkhani (the key figures overseeing overseas paramilitary operations following Qassem Soleimani’s death), principal Shiite factions united around the candidacy of intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
Tehran’s ambassador in Baghdad commented that Iran viewed Al-Kadhimi’s candidacy favorably, while IMIS leaders like Hadi Al-Amiri also publicly backed him. Al-Kadhimi is perceived as someone who could use his good connections with the West to convince the US to continue with its sanctions waivers, thus offering a potential lifeline for both Baghdad and Tehran. However, some elements within the IMIS coalition previously accused him of facilitating America’s assassination of Soleimani and his candidacy has been vigorously denounced by radical elements.
While Al-Kadhimi stated last week that weapons should only be in the government’s hands, Iraqi officials cite “backroom deals,” in which the prime minister-designate would not interfere in paramilitary affairs in return for Shiite political support for his candidacy.
As citizens of one of the top five countries in the world in terms of oil reserves, Iraqis should be enjoying the wealth of their counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Canada. Instead, Iraq is following the fatal path of Venezuela: Neglected citizens drowning in poverty, a collapsing health service, faltering electricity, and toxic water sources. This is not accidental, but rather a deliberate outcome of 17 years of Iranian efforts to corrupt, sectarianize and hollow out Iraq’s administration, in part thanks to Western ineptitude and a failure to deliver on the promises of 2003.
The paramilitaries and veteran warlords dominating Iraq and Lebanon’s political systems are singularly unfit to govern in the age of pandemic. Prioritizing public safety, expanding health care access and shoring up crumbling economies aren’t challenges befitting these thuggish, Mafioso-style leaderships.
The onset of coronavirus has been both a catastrophe and a blessing for these regimes. Economies already at death’s door have been shattered by the restrictive measures needed to counter the virus, but the pandemic also poured cold water over the mass protests that have blighted these states.
This isn’t just a passing crisis of confidence — public trust in these hollow and discredited governing systems has long since evaporated. Indeed, these ruling classes must hope that the deadly threat of COVID-19 stays for some time to come because, once this is all over, the citizens of Iraq, Iran and Lebanon will need little encouragement to pour back on to the streets and demand the downfall of those who have taken everything from them.