The outbreak of protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran has shaken the political establishment in Tehran.
For decades, the theocracy has thrived on the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, which aimed to mobilize Shiite support across the Middle East under a single Iranian religious and political leadership.
But exporting the Iranian brand of revolutionary Shiism and expanding the country’s geopolitical influence has proven a persistent, uphill battle, and culminated in a huge backlash.
The explosion of anger and frustration in Iran and Iran-influenced countries is the latest and, perhaps, gravest crisis that Tehran has confronted in recent years.
Brian Hook, the US State Department’s Iran envoy, has described its nationwide protests as “the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years.”
Hundreds of protesters were reportedly killed and thousands more arrested, while the government imposed nationwide internet blackouts to prevent media coverage, which drew strong international condemnation.
Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has gained an advantage over its geopolitical rivals in projecting power across a number of countries with religiously mixed populations, notably Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
In order to export its ideology and consolidate its strategic gains, Iran has had to forge alliances with non-Sunni minorities, such as the Alawites in Syria, Zaydis in Yemen, Ibadis in Oman, Christians in Lebanon and Ismailis elsewhere in the region.
The objective was not only to disrupt the regional balance of power, but also to swing it in its favor, against the Sunni-majority powers. The realignment of the regional order — in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen — was so sharp that it prompted Ali Riza Zakani, an Iranian member of parliament, to boast that Iran had finally captured their capitals.
But now, after benefiting from four decades of revolutionary fervor, Iran’s rulers are confronting the challenge of governing the “captured territories.” Chief among them is accommodating these countries’ ethnic and sectarian diversities.
This reality check has forced Iran-backed Shiite parties in Iraq and Lebanon to pursue a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic model of governance, allowing Iran to cobble together cross-sectarian coalitions and maintain the regional upper hand.
In 2006, Hezbollah forged an alliance with the Christian Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Together they comprised the March 8 alliance, which included other sectarian political parties.
Both groups aimed to undermine Sunni and Saudi political influence in Lebanon. Their efforts culminated in the imposition of Michael Aoun, the FPM leader, on the country as its president and securing a parliamentary majority in 2018, an electoral victory that followed the gerrymandering of districts and the adoption of an electoral law that primarily favored the FPM.
Likewise in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a step that coincided with other Iran-sponsored groups dropping their demands for an Islamic theocracy in Baghdad. Former revolutionaries soon became partners in Iraq’s multi-ethnic and confessional power-sharing arrangements.
Tehran’s problems have been compounded by the actions of its local political allies, who have adopted unabashed sectarian rhetoric, maintained their allegiance to the velayat-e faqih and used state resources to advance their political objectives.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, state resources have proven vulnerable to predatory political abuse. Government ministries have been distributed without consideration for merit, while services and contracts have been handed out to party loyalists and politically connected candidates.
The result has been a fragmented and unaccountable elite, members of which have divided the spoils of power generously among themselves.
In 2018, the Fragile State Index measured the stability of more than 178 countries; it placed Lebanon among the “warning states” and Iraq among the “alert states.” Both countries’ elites ranked among the world’s "most fragmented." Transparency International has also ranked the perception of corruption in both countries as among the highest globally.
Despite the reluctance of the Shiite political parties to embrace the Iranian theocratic model wholesale, both Iraq and Lebanon have proven vulnerable to the velayat-e faqih’s strategy of spawning a state within the state.
The success of Hezbollah and Hashd Al-Shaabi is most evident in their ability to replicate the Iranian-style “duality of power” model by penetrating and subduing their home country’s state institutions whose ethnic and sectarian diversity posed an obstacle of sorts.
Consequently, the governments in Iraq and Lebanon have been denied sole monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force, and forced to accept a parallel system of informal, armed and unaccountable Iran-sponsored institutions.
To be sure, the hardening of US sanctions against Iran and its allies as well as the relative decline of oil prices over the past decade has taken a direct toll on Iran’s economy. The sanctions have additionally put a crimp in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) maneuverability in regional battlefields.
Most alarmingly from Tehran’s standpoint, the US moves have opened up a chasm between the economic interests of these countries and the political interests of their Iran-aligned leaders. While the people seek market normalization, integration, and investment, their governments see such measures as the keys to their own demise.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has long overwhelmed Lebanese government institutions. Its success stems from the ability of its informal military and social welfare networks to secure the loyalty of its sectarian constituents. Its security institutions have overcome the challenge posed by the multi-sectarian make-up of Lebanese society through threats of violence and civil war.
Successive governments have been forced to recognize Hezbollah’s right to keep its weapons and stand idly by every time it has chosen to exercise power within the country or entered into a conflict.
In 2008 and 2016, Hezbollah’s political dominance enabled it to impose its own presidential nominees, overruling parliamentary majorities. And in 2018, its decisive electoral victory ensured full control over the government.
But Lebanon’s dollar-dependent economic system runs broadly counter to that established by velayat-e faqih. Its free market remains tied to Arab states and critically linked to Western support and assistance. Arab oil-generated remittances, deposits and investments have traditionally kept the economy ticking.
In late 2019, Lebanon found itself on the edge of an abyss as its entire economic system faced collapse. Protesters took to the streets to demand the government’s resignation and the formation of a government of technocrats.
Hezbollah and its allies went on the defensive as they found the spontaneous public uprising — “Al-Thawra” or revolution — a direct threat to the dual power structure that serves their political objectives so well.
In Iraq, a similar dual power structure encompassing political rivals is to blame for the unraveling of the economy and the administration’s dysfunctional state.
Iran’s outsize influence is seen by large sections of Iraq’s population as preventing Baghdad from forging an independent oil strategy or economic policy founded on national interest.
A case in point is the Iraqi government’s bungling of a $53 billion Exxon deal that aimed to help Iraq boost its oil output in the southern fields. The outcome is seen by ordinary Iraqis as a result of Tehran’s dogged opposition to an economic partnership between Iraq and the US.
Meanwhile, Iraqis are resentful over their dependence on Iran for electricity supplies and other commodities. The full extent of their frustration became evident when protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf, replaced the Iranian flag and set fire to the building.
In retrospect, even as Iran succeeded, through its local proxies, to disrupt the balance of political power and marginalize Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, it unwittingly sowed the seeds of sectarian and ethnic discontent in the four predominantly Arab countries. Now it is reaping the whirlwind.
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