I wrote here about an emerging strategy to undermine the Iranian regime. A key element is making the regime pay for its regional adventurism, which has become quite unpopular with the Iranian population.
This can be accomplished this by making Iran’s adventurism increasingly costly and humiliating the regime by thwarting its ambitions. As Jonathan Speyer explained it:
A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad and exacerbate internal tensions while subjecting the country to tactical humiliations and defeats in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from regional commitments. Tehran will thus be forced to either spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.
The strategy extends to countries throughout the region. Though the stakes seem highest in Syria right now, Speyer views Iraq as key. So, apparently, does Saudi Arabia, the arch-enemy of Iran. It has pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits to Iraq for reconstruction following the war against Islamic State.
In my post on the subject, I expressed doubt about the extent to which we can curb Iranian influence in Iraq. But news from Iraq last week suggests that Iraqis themselves want to curb it.
In the south of Iraq, violent protests broke out, causing the government to declare a state of emergency.
The protests, led by local tribal leaders, began in Basra and then spread to five other southern provinces: Najaf, Karbala, Maysan, Babil, and Dhi Qar. Demonstrators demanded jobs and radically improved public services (keep in mind that this is an oil rich region).
They also denounced Iran’s influence in their region. In Nasriyya protesters chanted “Iran Iran we don’t want you anymore.” In Najaf demonstrators arrested Iranian infiltrators chanting “those are Iranian pimps, those are Iranian mercenaries, those are the group of Khamenei, those are the damned Iranians.”
Najah, Nasriyya, and the region as a whole are Shia strongholds. Thus, Iran is being denounced by at least portions of the population with which it has (or had) a natural affinity.
Nor is denunciation all. Demonstrators raided and destroyed Iranian backed Islamic party offices and buildings in cities throughout Southern Iraq. In Najaf they attacked the local headquarters of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Dawa Party and set it on fire. One arsonist referred to that Party as “the Iranian Dawa Party.” Demonstrators could be heard chanting “burn the Iranian parties.”
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader for the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites, has expressed his sympathy with the protesters grievances. Indeed, his comments may have fueled some of the protests.
Populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in Iraq’s May election, also said in a tweet that he shares the protesters concerns. He called their demonstrations “a revolution of the starving.”
Sadr once was closely aligned with Iran. Indeed, he was viewed as Tehran’s puppet. However, Sadr has shed that image to the point that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted him in Riyadh last year. With the way the wind is blowing now, Sadr can be expected to continue distancing himself from the Iranian regime.
To resist that wind, Iran will need to spend time, money, and energy — and do so at a time when the nullahs face mounting protests at home over economic conditions and the high priority they place on exerting influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, etc. But to yield to the wind would be a humiliation and a sign of weakness.
It’s a tough time for the Iranian regime. And to make matters worse, it can no longer turn to Barack Obama for relief.