Iran and Its Proxies Face the Costs of Imperialism

By November 25, 2019

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,354, November 25, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In both Iraq and Lebanon, Shiites are participating in protests against Iranian-backed, Shiite-led governments. As protests and violence in Iraq and Lebanon continue, Iran is beginning to learn that imperialism in a world of mass politics and protest has unintended costs.

In a serious jolt to the Iranian regime, this month has seen recurrent attacks on the headquarters of pro-Iranian militia headquarters in Iraq’s southern provinces. This area is populated almost exclusively by Shiites, which the pro-Iranian Iraqi government supposedly represents.

These protests contrast sharply with the quiet that now prevails in Anbar, the exclusively Sunni province in Iraq’s northeast, which had been, ever since the rise of the Shiites to power in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam, the epicenter of revolt against the predominantly Shiite governments that have ruled Iraq since 2003. The Sunnis, living under the harsh control of the Iranian-led Shiite militias that occupied the areas in their fight against ISIS, are now too cowed to join the protests dominated by Iraq’s Shiite majority in the south.

So great has been the wave of anger and violence against the operating arms of Iranian power in Shiite Iraq that in Karbala, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in the country, the headquarters of two major pro-Iranian militias, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq and al-Badr, were evacuated and closed by the police as a preventive measure. Demonstrators even tried targeting the Iranian consulate in the city, though it is protected by thick contiguous cement pillars.

The headquarters were closed to protect members of the organization, but even more to protect the demonstrators. During attacks on other Iranian-backed militia sites, the militias reacted with live fire, increasing the number of casualties and inflaming passions further—which subsequently increased rather than decreased the number of protestors. The police, by contrast, who are an arm of the Iraqi state, try to control protests by responding with non-lethal means (typically tear gas and rubber batons).

In Lebanon, most attacks have been unidirectional, with Hezbollah sympathizers (or members) attacking the demonstrators rather than the other way around. This asymmetry reflects the lethal balance of power in Lebanon, where Hezbollah rather than the national army has been the most powerful military organization in the country for over a generation. The army cannot and does not attempt to compete with it.

Common to both countries is the source of the anger against Tehran and its local proxies. Both the militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon have been milking their governments to maintain themselves.

In Iraq, a law was passed integrating the militias into the federal army, making their members beneficiaries of the same salaries and benefits received by soldiers in the federal army. The aim of the law was to bring an end to the phenomenon of non-state militias. The outcome, following considerable pressure from Iran and the militias themselves, was exactly the opposite. Not a single militia was dismantled.

In Lebanon, the problem is of more recent vintage. Until recently, Iran and Hezbollah (which, in Nasrallah’s own words, relies entirely on Iranian financial support) fueled the Lebanese economy. That small but strategic country has long been one whose citizens live beyond their means thanks to monies sent by its large diaspora, oil-rich states vying for power, and ample aid from the EU and member states (especially France, which has historical ties to the Maronites, the largest Christian sect in Lebanon).

This is why taxation rates in Lebanon have always hovered at 10-20% of state expenditures—half the rate of countries at a similar level of development and less than half that of developed states.

The 2012 sanctions against Iran, which led to a decline in oil exports from 2.2 million barrels per day to less than a million, caused a sharp decline in Iranian allocations to Hezbollah—at just the moment when the organization’s financial needs jumped to coincide with its fighting in the Syrian civil war. A partial solution to this problem was to join the Lebanese government, secure control over the Ministry of Health, and milk its budget.

President Trump’s sanctions since 2017 are even more painful to Iran because the price of oil now averages little more than half what it was in the previous round of sanctions ($110 a barrel then and $55 since 2017). This hit likely impaired the Iranian regime’s ability to subsidize its Hezbollah proxy.

The Iranians are learning the same lesson the Western empires did after WWII: that imperialism rarely brings economic dividends even in the best of times to citizens of the home country, and mass protests will eventually erupt.

The danger to Iran is not the protests in Iraq and Lebanon per se. Hezbollah and the Iranian-led militias in Iraq have all the guns they need and the resolve to use them against defenseless protestors, be they in Beirut, Najaf, or Karbala.

What does worry the Iranian political elite, from Ayatollah Khamenei on down, is the potential linkage between these protests and the protests taking place inside Iran itself against the leadership’s imperialist policies, which work to the detriment of Iran’s own citizens. The people are suffering, due to both the direct costs of the regime’s subsidizing its proxies abroad and the considerable direct and indirect costs of American sanctions.

Ironically for the theocratic regime in Iran, the strongest link between the populations of Iraq and Iran is the mass pilgrimages of Iranians to the holy cities in Iraq. These pilgrimages give the populations an opportunity to recognize their common plight—that they are both under the boot of a regime that is harshly and violently interfering in the broader region at their expense.

This is an edited version of an article published in The Jerusalem Post on November 5, 2019.

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]