If Iraq descends into chaos, Iran could seize its chance to take control
What is the common denominator between the current situation in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen? Simply put, it is intervention of Iran; which, in all three cases, has been brought about by the chaos that exists in those countries.
The political vacuum and civil war in Lebanon attracted the attention of Tehran, which founded Hezbollah. In Syria, Iran initially extended a helping hand when Bashar Assad’s regime was falling apart, and is now a partner in power. As for Yemen, when Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime collapsed amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, the Iranians pushed the Houthis, a sectarian community with which they were affiliated, to seize power in defiance of international accords about the governance of the country, and its desire to appoint a transitional government and hold elections.
It might now be Iraq’s turn to fall victim to the regime in Tehran. The protests of the past few days have paved the way for chaos, and Iranian forces have amassed in the border region. It is not unlikely that they will use any pretext to occupy the capital, Baghdad. If the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi refuses to let them in, or steps down, the Iranians can count on a majority of votes in the Iraqi Parliament, either from those loyal to or fearful of them.
But would Tehran dare to make this move? The Iranian regime has enough regional experience to know that no internal or external force will defy it. The US, which considers Iraq a strategically important country, has a limited military presence there and little appetite for a fight. Iran aims to use Iraq as leverage to put pressure on Washington, and the region, to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed, in addition to using Iraqi oil resources to finance its fiscal deficit. On top of that, Iran’s ambitions in Iraq are long-standing; it considers the Arab country its geographical and religious extension and a greater prize than Syria, Lebanon and Yemen combined.
Iran aims to use Iraq as leverage to put pressure on Washington, and the region, to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran.
There is nothing that can scare Iran at the moment. International reactions are both easy to predict, and have been tested by the regime many times.
European countries did nothing about Iranian intelligence’s conspiracy to commit acts of terror on their soil. Germany continues to defend Iran and France is mediating attempts to lift the US sanctions.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump does not want to ruin his chances of winning re-election a year from now because of a conflict with Iran, and the Russians are hedging their bets and holding the stick in the middle. Almost all regional powers, including Egypt and Pakistan, are avoiding a confrontation with Iran. Turkey has been defeated in Syria and Saudi Arabia is besieged on multiple fronts.
Iran’s aggressive behavior will, of course, become an international problem in time — even for those trying to make peace with Tehran, such as the EU — but I fear it will be too late for Iraq by then. Iran wants to destroy the Iraqi political system, on the pretext that it was put in place by the US, and replace it by a sectarian theocracy that resembles its own and answers to its supreme leader.
The security and safety of Iraq are important for the stability of the region, and not a single neighboring country wants to sabotage this — except for Iran, which has a hegemony project on which it has been working for the past decade.
Unfortunately, however, Iran is not the only source of the problem. The performance of Iraqi state institutions is not as good as the Iraqi people, who have been anticipating better conditions for decades, wish it to be. The Americans, who bet on the establishment of democratic institutions and sowed the seeds of freedom, have failed to secure for the people a minimum standard of living and security. Instead, some clerics and clans have exploited these democratic institutions and used them to expand their dominance. As a result, corruption has become a widespread problem in the country.
Iraq now faces a difficult test because spontaneous demonstrations will not fix the problems the way the Iraqi people hope. In fact, they may jeopardize the stability of the state and provide an opportunity for forces lying in wait to take advantage and seize power.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.