Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

Anti-government protesters play football during a sit-in on the bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during ongoing protests, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo)
Updated 14 November 2019

Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

  • Victory over Iran in the World Cup qualifier being played in neighboring Jordan could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement
  • Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq

BAGHDAD: For Iraqis opposed to the Baghdad government and its sponsor Tehran, there is even more than football at stake when Iraq faces Iran in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Anti-regime rallies at the epicenter of protests in the capital’s Thrill Square have faded in recent days, following a spree of arrests, threatening messages and killings of activists.
Hussein Diaa hopes that victory over Iran, in the match whose venue has been changed to neighboring Jordan, could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement.
“If our team beats Iran, it will bring more people out onto the streets and lift protesters’ spirits,” said the 24-year-old, kicking a football around in Tahrir.
Behind him stood Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, the main frontline between angry protesters and security forces using tear gas, live rounds and at times machine-gun fire.
“Our players have to give their all so we can hold our heads up high and confront Iran,” said Diaa.
Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq.
The two countries fought a 1980-1988 war and were rivals under Saddam Hussein, but the predominantly Shiite states have grown close since the dictator was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.
The ensuing years saw Iraq swept up in sectarian violence and a war against the Daesh group, and FIFA banned international football matches on its territory.
The match between the two football-mad nations was to have been played in the southern port city of Basra.
But FIFA said it had assessed “the current security situation in Iraq” and informed the local federation that upcoming matches “must be played on neutral ground.”
It accepted Iraq’s proposal to change the venue to Amman.
FIFA’s decision came as a blow to Iraq after global football’s governing body had only earlier this year finally lifted a three-decade ban on it hosting internationals for safety reasons.
For Ahmad Al-Washa, Thursday’s match couldn’t come at a better time.
“Football is the best way to send a message to the whole world. We’re betting on this match,” said the activist.
Washa hoped it could be a way to attract international attention to the protests “so the United Nations can intervene and end the bloodshed.”
Well over 300 people have died since protests erupted on October 1 and 12,000 people have been wounded, but rallies have continued in Baghdad and across the south.
And when the game gets underway, the “Lions of Mesopotamia” will have fans “not just in Amman, but all across Tahrir,” said Washa.
Activists have erected a large screen to watch the match from 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT), usually the time when crowds start to swell in the square.
They will be expecting solidarity from the large Iraqi diaspora in Jordan.
Some have already posted online to call on fans in the stadium to wear medical masks in solidarity with protesters confronted by tear gas back in Iraq.
Other activists have called for fans to stand up in the 25th minute and chant, “We want a country!” — a key slogan of the protest movement and an ode to the day it was relaunched, October 25.
Sensing the encounter on the field could be heated, the head of Iraq’s football federation has been trying to head off any skirmishes.
“No racist banners against the Iranian team, otherwise FIFA could punish us,” he warned.
In more than a dozen showdowns between the national teams, Iran have won 11 times, with six wins for Iraq and two draws.
On Tahrir, Hussein Jawwad said the match could be a shot at a desperately-wanted win, both for the team and the protests.
“We’ve been targeting our leaders recently but on Thursday night, we’ll be aiming for the Iranian football team in Amman,” said the 25-year-old fan.


SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East

Updated 11 December 2019

SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East

  • Foreign policy scholars analyze the future of US-Arab ties at thought-leadership forum in Abu Dhabi
  • There is disillusionment among Americans regarding the investment of US resources in the Middle East

ABU DHABI: The transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and the model adopted by the UAE will be crucial to moving US-Arab relations forward.

This was one of the many insights offered by Norman T. Roule, chief executive officer at Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC, a GCC- and Iran-focused company, during a panel discussion at the first SALT Conference in Abu Dhabi.

He said what Saudi Arabia is doing, and given what the UAE has done so well, will promote engagement between entrepreneurs and academics, adding that the people who actually move societies “are more efficient, in many ways, than governments.”

Roule was one of three speakers in the discussion on the “Future of US-Arab relations”, moderated by Editor-in-chief of Arab News Faisal J. Abbas. The other two were Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dania Koleilat, affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

“Governments will deal with the big, heavy, perhaps unsolvable issues, but I have great hopes for this region,” Roule said, referring to the Gulf countries.

“There has never been so much education. (It is) a young region aspiring beyond sectarianism, corruption and the old ways of thinking - and we should be part of that evolution.”

According to him, entrepreneurs will be the future of engagement between the US and the Middle East. To this end, he suggested, bringing more Americans to the Middle East – something the three-day SALT Conference has done - will prove vital.

Roule said “there has never been so much people-to-people engagement between the US and the region as we have today.” Additionally, there is social media, which “ties together the US and the region in a way that has not happened before.”

In the context of Saudi-US relations, Roule said there has been a shift in US public opinion due to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. At the same time, he said, “former or current policymakers say,‘We have a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.’ But they will never explain what that means, or where we should take it.”

Roule thinks Saudi Arabia has an enormous role to play in such areas as moderating Islam worldwide, enhancing the role of women throughout the region, improving the economies of the Middle East, including Jordan and Israel, as well as rebuilding broken states, including Libya and Yemen.

“America needs to be behind that,” Roule said. “It’s unfortunate that policymakers don’t spend a lot of time talking about where we should go with the Kingdom, but I agree that the Kingdom doesn’t have a great reputation right now in the election.”

Nevertheless, he said he has seen US policymakers make requests to the Saudi leadership to support a number of regional initiatives.

Left to right: Faisal J. Abbas, Dania Koleilat Khatib, Richard Haass and Norman T. Roule discuss the relationship between the Middle East and the US at the first SALT conference in Abu Dhabi. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Overall the Iraq war and the Afghan conflict were “anomalies” in how America has handled the Middle East since 1945. “And in many ways, America’s position in the Middle East is generally to try to avoid another conflict, to try to empower our allies to defend themselves, and to work to resolve regional problems,” he said.

Fluctuating Middle East oil prices are still felt in such places as Ohio, Roule noted, but added: “There is fatigue in the US over endless peace process efforts that seem to go nowhere, endless wars in the Middle East, which consume budgets, armies, calendars and reputations and which never seem to end for anybody. There’s not a lot of interest in doing that.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of Washington’s most influential foreign-policy think tanks, said that when the Cold War ended 30 years ago, nobody would have predicted that such a large percentage of American foreign policy would be consumed in the Middle East, beginning with the Gulf War, which was “thrust” on the US by “Saddam (Hussein’s) aggression”.

“But then we ultimately had what I would call wars of choice, in places like Iraq in 2003, and some other issues that we’re dealing with now,” he said.

“There’s a general sense that the Middle East absorbed too high a percentage of America’s national security resources. Our energy interests in the Middle East and our direct interests are down.”

Haass said there is disillusionment among Americans who think that the return on investment of the resources the US devoted to the Middle East has not been particularly good. “We have a domestic society that is more divided,” he said, “and, internationally, there are several big developments, one of which is the rise of US-Chinese competition.”

He said what is emerging for many as the defining feature of US foreign policy is a much worse relationship with Russia, a much less certain Europe, problems in Asia, including China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and global issues such as climate change.

“The Middle East has to compete with other regions of the world, other relationships and other challenges at the global level,” Haass said. “So it’s not surprising that there’s a dialing down, or a re-evaluation, of how much we are involved in the region and how we are involved.”

This regional “dialing down” by the US was called out by Koleilat, particularly in the context of the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon. She said "the two countries have reached a boiling point" as an opinion poll shows strong majorities supporting a separation of politics and religion.

As a Lebanese who specializes in US-Arab relations, Koleilat spoke of a personal feeling of betrayal over the US administration’s position.

“Lebanese people have realized that sectarianism has led to clientelism, which has led to corruption, which in turn, had led to state failure,” she said. “Today, we have gone from 30 to 50 percent of Lebanese below the poverty level and the state is unable to provide services.”

Although she said the US could not be expected to engage with protesters, it could still put pressure on the Lebanese government to reform and change, adding that such pressure could include withholding of support unless such reforms were implemented.

“The demands of the Lebanese people are very clear,” she said. “We want a non-political government of technocrats.”

According to Koleilat, the US is less interested in the Middle East these days because of three factors, one of which is American isolationism.

“It started after the Iraq war. People in the US want to disengage from the region,” she said.

“The second factor you have to look at is Trump’s way of conducting foreign policy in a transactional manner, so you don’t see engagement for the long haul.”

The third factor is the strategic value of oil, she said. “I don’t see the doctrine where the US would say it is ready to use military force to keep the security of the Gulf,” she said.

“So, if you take these three factors into consideration, there is less American interest and less engagement, and this (approach) will continue in the future.”

For his part, Haass cited Iran as a case where the present US administration has succeeded in exerting tremendous pressure - more than what analysts had predicted was possible - through unilateral sanctions.

The question is to what end, he said.

“Sanctions are a means, they’re a foreign policy instrument,” he said. “The question then is what our definition of success and our goal are here.”

Haass said it is unlikely the government in Tehran can be brought down as the system has proved resilient for four decades now. Rather, the US needs to signal to Iran and have a conversation about its requirements in the realms of nuclear technology and missiles, as well as regional and local issues, in order to have a degree of sanctions removed.

“That, to me is what we used to call diplomacy,” Haass said. “The question is whether there is a place for diplomacy.

The answer is “potentially yes. If not, the danger is we drift towards war because Iran has shown it is simply not going to absorb economic pressure or warfare from us. We need to have a diplomatic initiative.”