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Iran’s wounded rulers bring region to the boil

Despite the ayatollahs blood-thirstily demanding vengeance, the consequences of Qassem Soleimani’s killing aren’t particularly impacting the Western world, or even overseas-based US forces. Rather, they are playing out in the cities of Lebanon and Iraq, and even Iran itself. Political tensions are boiling and casualties are mounting. 
Three months into the Lebanese uprising and confrontations between the police and protesters are taking an increasingly violent turn, with 400 casualties over just 24 hours at the weekend. Meanwhile, with each new day we hear claims that a government of “technocrats” is closer to being formed under Hezbollah’s choice of prime minister, Hassan Diab. Yet protesters know that, as long as designated ministers are beholden to key factions, the same corrupt, clientelistic practices will continue. Indeed, Gebran Bassil, Hassan Nasrallah and other self-interested factions are furiously competing to maximize their share of seats and perpetuate their monopolization of power and resources.
The Americans have finally woken up and begun putting pressure on the parties; emphasizing that support can only resume if a clean, competent and independent government is formed. The World Bank and other major donors are ready to roll out cash injections of billions of dollars if the requisite reforms are introduced. Yet Tehran deliberately throws spanners in the works because, from its point of view, it is better Lebanon be a conflict-blighted, bankrupt basket case than it opens its doors to Western assistance.
Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Hezbollah activists have been steering the rioting and attacks on public buildings, hoping to terrorize citizens into believing that the best they can hope for is to re-embrace the corrupt, sectarian, impoverished status quo.
About 300 Lebanese banks and ATMs have been attacked by masked assailants. Banks have been the focus of public anger because they exemplify the unhealthy relationship between money and politics. A kleptocratic class has bled the economy white, triggering a financial crisis that elites have exacerbated by smuggling their ill-gotten wealth outside the country. With the currency in freefall, ordinary Lebanese are obstructed from withdrawing their hard-eared savings. 
In the wake of Soleimani’s killing, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is reportedly having such difficulty recruiting a new evil mastermind of overseas subversion that he is considering appointing a man who has spent the last 14 years hiding deep underground — Hassan Nasrallah. Israel would be elated to finally get a chance to target him. Despite the many Nasrallah fanboys among Iraqi militants, powerful paramilitary chiefs like Hadi Al-Amiri would not be happy at being placed under the command of a pocket-sized warlord from little Lebanon. While fighting in Syria, Al-Amiri’s Badr Brigades similarly rejected Hezbollah’s leadership — they had their own chains of command who only took orders from generals who spoke Farsi.


In a week in which Hezbollah in its entirety was designated as a terrorist organization by the UK, Nasrallah had nothing substantive to say in his speech about Lebanon’s manifold crises. Instead, he is already implausibly masquerading as de facto overlord of Iraq — demanding that US troops must leave peacefully or “in coffins.” In a bizarre attack against Iraq’s Kurds, Nasrallah bragged that Masoud Barzani had been “shaking in fear” in the face of ISIS 2014 advances. Nasrallah demanded that Kurds thank Soleimani for saving them from ISIS. “You’ve forgotten that for years you haven’t seen the sunlight,” one Kurdish spokesman retorted. 
In reality, Barzani’s Peshmerga proved infinitely more effective in fighting ISIS than Soleimani’s proxies, who were too busy looting and burning citizens’ homes to do much fighting. Nasrallah may have bitten off more than he can chew in Iraq, where rival Shiite militants and gangster warlords are already fighting one another for supremacy in the wake of Soleimani’s death.
Such was the tsunami of domestic anger triggered by Iran shooting down a plane full of its own citizens that Khamenei last week emerged from semi-retirement (he hasn’t delivered a Friday sermon in eight years) with a speech overflowing with threats and bluster. He incoherently asserted that the Quds Force was a “humanitarian organization,” meddling in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq for the glorious goal of defending Iran. Iran’s enemies were exploiting the plane strike to undermine the Islamic Republic’s reputation, he spluttered — although the regime has been doing an excellent job of this without outside help.
Khamenei was so stupefied by recent events that he declared: “What took place could not have been the work of any human actor, only the hand of God.” Indeed, Soleimani had so much blood on his hands that perhaps divine retribution did catch up with him. Khamenei and Nasrallah similarly eulogized the 2006 war as “nasr ilahi” (divine victory), despite Lebanon being reduced to a pile of smoking ruins.
Regarding the rockets that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ineffectually fired at US bases (for which Iran’s media farcically boasted the deaths of 80 Americans), Khamenei fulminated that Iran “possesses spiritual strengths to respond to the world’s biggest bullying power with an almighty slap in the face.” Following the strike, Trump — who receives worse daily slaps in the face from his former officials — tweeted with uncharacteristic sangfroid that “All is well.”
After European states last week pulled the plug on the nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani threatened their troops and asserted that Iran was now free to pursue its nuclear program. Impeccable logic; until the ayatollahs wake to find their nuclear sites blown to hell by Israeli airstrikes.
Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif quipped that Iranians took to the streets because they were “lied to for a couple days” — more like the last 40 years. Indeed, one state TV presenter resigned last week, begging viewers to “forgive me for 13 years of lying to you.” 
This is a truly miserable time to live in Iran. According to US statistics, a quarter of young Iranians are unemployed, inflation exceeds 40 percent, and the economy is expected to contract by a further 14 percent in 2020. Pity the finance officials scratching their heads over how to draft the upcoming state budget, following a collapse in oil revenue of more than 80 percent — particularly given the privileged slices of the budget that won’t be seeing any cuts.
As regional states disintegrate, this is the worst moment for a void in global leadership. Alongside Trump’s sledgehammer-wielding, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign policy, the Europeans have forgotten about the region altogether, while Russia, Turkey, Iran and China squabble over the remaining nooks and crannies of scorched earth. If there was any justice, proxies like Nasrallah, Al-Amiri and Qais Al-Khazali would be tried for treason, having sold out their countrymen and wreaked death and destruction in their service of a foreign power. 
Yet perhaps the moment of reckoning is coming sooner than we realize. Panicky and contradictory statements reflect the decrepit confusion befalling the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Khamenei can trumpet the threadbare achievements of his “resistance economy” all he likes, but the only thing he’s resisting these days is the aspirations of his own people. 
Like rats deserting a sinking ship, when the Islamic Republic ultimately does implode, Tehran’s region-wide traitors and lackeys will be packing suitcases overflowing with stolen money and rushing to catch the first flight to Venezuela, while Iraqis and Lebanese celebrate their new-found freedom. With fresh recollections of how Muammar Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh met their miserable ends, Nasrallah, Al-Amiri and Al-Khazali may even prefer throwing themselves at the mercy of Israel’s prison system, rather than face the wrath of their own people.