November 18, 2019 | Policy Brief

Iran Stepped in to Save Pro-Tehran Government in Baghdad

November 18, 2019 | Policy Brief

Iran Stepped in to Save Pro-Tehran Government in Baghdad

Amidst a growing backlash against Iranian influence, Tehran compelled its allies in Baghdad to support Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whose resignation is one of the protesters’ top demands. Tehran’s intervention demonstrates the pivotal role it now plays in protecting a corrupt system from popular demands for reform.

Tehran’s point man in Baghdad is Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the external operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). After protests first broke out in early October, Soleimani flew to Baghdad, where he chaired a meeting of top security officials in place of the Iraqi prime minister. Iranian-backed militias then launched a violent crackdown, which entailed snipers using live ammunition to kill protesters.

These heavy-handed tactics had the unintended effect of stoking widespread anger that ensured the continuation and growth of the protests. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the largest bloc in parliament, called for the prime minister’s resignation and pressured other Shiite party leaders to do the same. Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, announced at the end of October that Abdul-Mahdi was prepared to step down, pending selection of an acceptable successor. Salih also backed early elections.

To ensure the prime minister remained in office, Soleimani returned to Baghdad to meet with key political figures. The meetings resulted in a plan to keep Abdul-Mahdi’s government in place until elections some time in 2020, in part by offering reforms to address the demonstrators’ concerns. In practice, however, Soleimani appears to calculate that targeted killings and kidnappings, along with colder weather, will eventually break the protests.

Reportedly, the prime minister himself was ready to step down and even prepared a resignation speech, yet changed his plans under pressure from pro-Tehran officials. Meanwhile, Sadr travelled to Iran for a week in early November, presaging a new emphasis on criticism of the U.S., rather than denouncing Iraqi politicians.

Sadr’s new line echoes that of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran-backed militias in Iraq. On Twitter, Khamenei blamed the U.S. and Israel for the “insecurity and turmoil in Iraq.” Qais al-Khazali, commander of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, dismissed early elections as an “essentially American project.” In contrast, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected religious authority, used his Friday sermon to both express support for the protesters and call on parliament to pass a new electoral law.

At least thus far, the Iranian intervention has proven unsuccessful in defusing public anger directed at Tehran. Last week, protesters celebrated the Iraqi national team’s victory over Iran in a World Cup qualifying match, with some at the game cursing Soleimani by name.

In the streets, security forces continued to employ lethal violence against protesters, with the estimated death toll now reaching 320. Government ministries have not cooperated with independent efforts to document casualties; thus the actual toll may be higher. In addition to live ammunition, a prominent cause of death is the use of oversized Iranian-made tear gas grenades to pierce protesters’ skulls and cause other lethal injuries.

In a November 12 phone call with the Iraqi prime minister, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the clearest statement so far of support for the protesters and condemnation of the government’s violence. Previously, Pompeo called “on all sides to reject violence.”

U.S. leaders should continue to speak out clearly on behalf of human rights and democratic reform, including the disarming of militias that do not respect the rule of law. The administration should also employ Global Magnitsky and related authorities to sanction the individuals and armed groups responsible for atrocities.

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Nicholas Wernert is an intern. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow them on Twitter @adesnik and @Nickydubz21. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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