The Iranian regime is balancing on a tightrope. Recent protests may have subsided after the brutal crackdown, which has already left an estimated 1,500 dead, but this lull is expected to be only temporary as the protesters reorganize and build up to be one of the most significant uprisings in Iran yet.
Meanwhile, Tehran is teetering on the edge of war in the Arabian Gulf with the US. Though unlikely, any conflict that would strangle the flow of about a quarter of the world’s oil requirements would have devastating consequences for the global economy. And the key to how this entire situation may unfold in 2020 lies with Iraq.
The US war in Iraq achieved exactly the opposite of what it was meant to: Instead of creating a staunch and reliable partner to help encircle Iran, it has created an ally of Tehran.
This is not to mention that Iran was much more helpful to Baghdad in the latter’s fight against ISIS in the Sunni-dominated northwest of the country in the 2010s than was the US, and so the Iraqi government owes a debt of gratitude to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their Shiite militia proxies in Iraq for that help.
After almost two decades of war, Iraqi politicians are increasingly putting the needs of the country before their sectarian allegiances, and former alliances with foreign sponsors and backers.
At this point, it may be more a matter of self-preservation than anything else since this political realignment is driven largely by popular protest, but the shift is nonetheless profoundly significant in the broader geopolitics of the Middle East. It turns out that after years of bitter insurgency against the US occupation, and having fought off ISIS, the people of Iraq are in no mood to be pawns in Iran’s geopolitical games either.
This may well turn out to be an existential problem for Iran. The current protests in the country are a consequence of decades of economic mismanagement — further exacerbated by US sanctions under the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure.
Tehran aims to use allied countries as conduits for foreign trade in order to circumvent US embargoes and ease economic pressures at home. Iraq would be perfect to this end since the US would be reluctant to impose penalties on the country, even if it is aiding Iran, for fear of once again destabilizing it and igniting another anti-American powder keg in the Middle East.
The Iranians seem to be repeating the mistakes of the US in Iraq, overplaying their hand regarding how much leverage they have in the country, and how much they should try to exert. They are trying to force choice into positions of power — choice militias, choice political parties and choice local leaders. Instead of courting the friendship and alliance of the country as a whole, they are opting to throw their weight around on the Iraqi political stage. And this is backfiring badly.
That is not to say the approach is bound to fail. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are a political-military force with no equivalent in the West. It has already proved extremely effective on the ground in the Middle East, and was a pivotal factor in the survival of Bashar Assad’s regime against all odds.
The Revolutionary Guards are believed to command as many as 100,000 troops and local auxiliaries in Iraq, and are working hard to derail the emergence of an autonomous and nationalistic political consensus among Iraq’s leadership in Baghdad. If they succeed, Iran should be able to use Iraq as a conduit for its international trade and stabilize the economic situation at home in the coming months.
Yet the heavy-handed, hard-power approach Tehran is taking with Iraq may well end up boomeranging if the Shiite leaders of political forces in Baghdad side with the pro-autonomy popular protests in the country, rather than yielding to the menacing presence of the Revolutionary Guards. Hence, we have seen Iranian militia leaders such as Qais Al-Khazali, chief of Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq; Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandes, the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) leader; and Hadi Al-Ameri from the Badr Corps attempting to hijack the protests by directing crowds to breach the US Embassy.
It is too early to call which way this situation will go in 2020. But it is profoundly ironic that as things stand, it is the mullahs in Baghdad who hold the fate of Iran in their hands, rather than the other way around.