With 400 already dead, the killings in Iraq escalated horrifically at the weekend following the torching of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf. About 70 protesters were gunned down in just 48 hours, largely at the hands of unaccountable Tehran-backed paramilitaries. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative incited the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) to “pursue” and “uproot” those responsible for the consulate fire.
Tehran’s crackdown strategies in Lebanon, Iraq and upon its own streets increasingly reek of desperation. Playing for time and making cosmetic political changes have failed. Attempts to terrorize and crush the demonstrations have simply brought out thousands more furious and defiant protesters. When Hezbollah personnel taunted protesters with their yellow flags and sectarian slogans, citizens defiantly chanted back: “This is Lebanon, not Iran,” and “Hezbollah is a terrorist.” Accusations of being “Zionist stooges” or failing to support the “axis of resistance” used to intimidate Hezbollah’s critics into silence. Now such rhetoric is incessantly ridiculed in the protest camps.
At recent international conferences, regime-connected Iranian academics have floated proposals for converting Hezbollah into a purely political entity. Hezbollah is Tehran’s crown jewel in terms of its overseas sedition. The fact this is even being mooted suggests a degree of panic within the regime due to the existential threat that current developments pose.
Having used an iron fist against Iranian protesters, Khamenei believes that proxies in Iraq and Lebanon haven’t been sufficiently aggressive. On Nov. 21, Khamenei summoned to Tehran Iraqi officials, including paramilitary leaders Falih Al-Fayyadh and Hadi Al-Amiri, and reportedly demanded “extreme levels of violence” to crush protests, even if the death toll extended into the thousands. “Iran will not give up Iraq and will not allow its influence to be reduced,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.
The Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani micromanaged the crackdown. Most deaths in Iraq are attributable to his paramilitary allies. According to eyewitness accounts, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq personnel in Shiite-majority towns like Nasiriyah and Amarah opened fire on protesters from the roofs of their own offices, as well as driving around shooting indiscriminately at citizens. There have been intensifying campaigns of abductions by paramilitaries, with instances of torture reported.
In the wake of the Najaf consulate incident, proxy leaders Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis (Kata’ib Hezbollah) and Qais Al-Khazali (Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq) called for deploying their forces in the holy cities, claiming — improbably — that protesters were plotting to attack their outspoken defender Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Indeed it was Al-Sistani’s call for Iraq’s leaders to “reconsider their choices” that is credited with forcing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. Tehran has pursued various pretexts for beefing up its presence in Iraq’s holy cities, having recently seen its proposal to send 20,000 Iranian security personnel to “protect pilgrims” rebuffed.
Abdul Mahdi’s resignation was jubilantly celebrated by demonstrators, but it changes nothing. The prime minister has been threatening to resign for weeks and was only prevented by the interventions of Soleimani, Al-Amiri and Al-Muhandis. Just as in Lebanon, constituting a new government could take months and will simply promote a new combination of the same corrupt, discredited faces. Protesters’ goals can only be achieved when the entire Tehran-sponsored sectarian system is razed to the ground.
Khamenei is desperate for rapid and decisive solutions because prolonged instability in Lebanon and Iraq weakens his ability to hold sway, while risking further contagion of unrest to Iranian cities. As well as harming ordinary Lebanese, the imminent collapse of the banking system would also impact Iran and Hezbollah, which have systematically laundered and hoarded funds via these channels. Tehran furthermore fears that, just as happened in 1982, Israel would exploit Lebanese civil conflict to try and eradicate the “resistance” once and for all.
Hezbollah can only hold sway in Lebanon via the collaboration of Christian leaders like President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose support within their communities is rapidly draining away. Hassan Nasrallah fears that killing protesters will further unite Lebanon against Hezbollah. Nevertheless, just as Khamenei arm-twisted Nasrallah into wading into the Syrian conflict, if Hezbollah’s paymasters demand blood, then the streets of Beirut will obediently run red.
The fatigued response from Western leaders has encouraged Iran’s allies that they can repress citizens with impunity. If we are to avoid an exponentially higher death toll, then diplomats must forcefully stipulate that there will be meaningful consequences (UN measures, sanctions, war crimes investigations, diplomatic action, etc.) if the aspirations of demonstrators are ignored and the authorities continue down the path of repression.
Although Khamenei is trying to peddle the model of brutal crackdowns as a magic solution to domestic unrest, protests inside Iran persist and may become further inflamed. Iranian protesters have been brutally crushed over and over again in recent years, yet still they courageously come out against their oppressors.
In the late 1970s, the shah of Iran desperately oscillated between confused attempts to appease Iranian demonstrators and botched crackdowns, which only succeeded in uniting the entirety of Iran against him. The result was the 1979 revolution, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came out on top and ruthlessly crushed all other segments of the opposition.
The protests in Iraq and Lebanon today are likewise on the brink of passing the point of no return. Through their escalating reliance on brutal and excessive force, IMIS and Hezbollah are tantalizingly close to signing their own death warrants, as they continue to undermine any remaining popular legitimacy among their grassroots supporters.
If this is indeed the beginning of the end for Iranian hegemony in Iraq and Lebanon, then we still have a long and bloody road ahead of us. Khamenei, Nasrallah and Al-Amiri are far from admitting defeat. Tehran has invested billions in its regional dominance strategy and won’t simply walk away. Their knee-jerk response to recent setbacks may be to ramp up the killing. This will reap a horrific toll, yet such atrocities will ultimately only serve to reinforce the popular determination to eliminate all manifestations of Iranian influence — permanently.