Unrest in Lebanon and Iraq is a chance for the US to turn the tables on Iran

Weeks of mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq are a clear blow to Iran and its ambitions to cement an arc of uncontested influence from Tehran to Beirut. In seeking to build a string of proxies in the Levant that answer directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran has overlooked a key stakeholder in alliance-building: The people of the Levant. 

Iran’s leaders, perhaps by virtue of their own authoritarian nature, have used an outdated conqueror’s playbook to extend their influence in the Levant — one that is more archetypal of ancient Persian regional politics than 21st century international relations. By building proxies in Lebanon and Iraq, Iran has pursued a policy of domination over its neighbors rather than alliance-building. 

An alliance denotes a level of mutual respect and equilibrium that crosses security, economic and political interests. Iran has sought none of that in its policies toward Lebanon and Iraq. Instead, it’s been the exact opposite. Iranian policies have undermined the security, economic and political interests of both countries through the empowerment of non-state actors that effectively have hollowed out central state institutions. 

Lebanon and Iraq share a similar story of broken, power-sharing political systems formed on the heels of devastating sectarian civil wars. Fueling both countries’ protest movements is fever-pitch anger at failed governments that cannot provide even the most basic of services, including clean drinking water, electricity or garbage collection. 

The flip side to the equation is that wealth in Lebanon and Iraq has been siphoned by a political elite who have run their economies into the ground. Fifty percent of all Lebanese bank deposits, according to IMF data, are held by the top 1 percent. Iraq, for its part, is boasting large annual oil export revenues but cannot provide reliable electricity for its citizens.  

Iran’s proxies sit amid the political elite in Lebanon and Iraq, and their power has only risen over the years, awarding Tehran unrivaled dominance in both states. Hezbollah is the major force in Lebanon and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is the de facto ruler of the country. Similarly, Iran’s network of Shiite militias and subservient political parties in Iraq have granted Tehran near-total control over Iraqi decision-making.

It should come as no surprise to Iranian officials, then, that they as well as their proxies are the target of street anger in Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanese and Iraqi protestors see Iran’s proxies as a major cause for poor governance and high corruption. But this is exactly how Iran’s policy architects designed it.  

Iran’s regional proxy network is essential to Tehran’s defensive posture — weaken neighboring states to ward off threats and increase Iran’s leverage should armed conflict with the United States and/or its regional allies erupt. An Iranian proxy on Israel’s border pauses the Jewish state to consider the consequences of any attack on Iran. But for a proxy to exist on Israel’s border, it needs to have the flexibility and power to answer to Iran’s call without internal Lebanese constraints. And, still haunted by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iran’s proxies in Iraq are specifically in place to prevent the reemergence of a strong Iraqi state. Thus, Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Iraq are doing precisely what they were established to do — weaken their respective central states and handicap their ability to govern. 

And that’s where Iranian policy in the two countries falls flat. By ignoring the welfare of the Lebanese and Iraqi peoples, through its quest for dominance in both countries, Iran has only galvanized a wave of anti-Iranianism, even among its Shiite co-religionists. Protests have included the Shiite regions of Lebanon and Iraq, and the anti-Iranian symbolism is particularly transparent in Iraq’s protests.

It’s a policy weakness to which Iran has no answer. Its default response is a combination of repressive tactics and a public relations operation to dismiss the protestors’ genuine demands for economic opportunity as a foreign plot. That is the only blueprint Iran knows because that’s exactly what it has done to suppress similar social justice protests domestically, arresting as many as 7,000 Iranians as part of a crackdown on protests that erupted in 2018. 

And it’s this precise policy weakness that opens the door for the United States to rewind Iranian influence and encourage lasting stability in two troublesome Middle Eastern states. Like Iran, the United States has overlooked a simple solution to the Middle East’s woes: Improved governance. 

As the protests in Lebanon and Iraq show, the demands for a dignified life outweigh the ethnic and religious identities through which the U.S. views the region and has crafted its policies. “Shiite,” “Sunni” and “Christian” are secondary labels when compared to the most basic human need for food and water. 

If Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq depends on their internal degradation, then a policy answer to that is the revitalization of Lebanese and Iraqi state institutions to combat that influence. Hezbollah thrives on the corruption and dysfunction of the central state to ensure there is no domestic power capable of disarming it or obliging it to deviate from Iran’s commands. Empowering both states to be full democracies with a clear separation of power and functional state institutions is the path to disentangling the webs that sustain Iranian influence.  

The protest movements offer the United States an opportunity to shift from its business-as-usual approach to the Middle East, of cozying up to reviled political elites and autocrats.

In Lebanon, for example, Washington has supported the same corrupt elite that is now, coupled with Hezbollah, the target of protestors’ anger. Creativity and flexibility are required in U.S. policy to learn from its mistakes in its handling of the Arab Spring in 2011 and to build alliances from the bottom-up — with ordinary Lebanese and Iraqis who share democratic aspirations and want their nations to reflect the stability of Western democracies, not the theocratic autocracy of Iran. 

Antoun Issa is senior editorial manager at Atlantic 57, the creative consulting division of The Atlantic. A non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, he is a regular commentator for various media outlets on Middle Eastern affairs and worked as a journalist in Beirut from 2011 to 2015. Follow him on Twitter @antissa.

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