Lessons from Lebanon: Why it’s too early to announce Iran’s defeat in Iraq

Lessons from Lebanon: Why it’s too early to announce Iran’s defeat in Iraq

A street in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, as calm returns after around 24 hours of deadly violence in Iraq on August 31, 2022. (AFP)

Iraq is falling apart and this could lead to a civil war; one that is too complex for me to understand. What matters is not so much how these conflicts begin as how they end and by what mediation. The main actor is the enigmatic Muqtada Al-Sadr and the focus for now is on inter-Shia rivalries. It is reminiscent of the brothers’ war between Amal and Hezbollah in the late 1980s in Lebanon and there are lessons to be learned from it. The end result is as important as the war in Ukraine in terms of long-term impact on both Iraq and the region.
Iraq is not Lebanon and Lebanon is not Iraq. No matter how many times I repeat it to myself, I can’t help but draw comparisons between the two. As a Lebanese, I sympathize and identify with the vocabulary used in the conflict – the same words and concepts are repeated with different accents. Code words like “change” can mean different things to different people. Like the Lebanese, the Iraqis complain about militias, the corruption of the political class, the erosion of institutions, sectarianism, the sharing of spoils, foreign interference and the failure of other Arab states to to help.
Iraq has also seen elections, boycotts, a crippled government, expatriate votes, a blocking third, assassinations without accountability and calls for national dialogue, all of which are all too familiar to the Lebanese. What is certainly common in Lebanon and Iraq is the loss of confidence in the political class and the near total collapse of state services, with Iran being the most influential external actor.
What looked like a revolt led by al-Sadr’s supporters turned violent when he announced his retirement from politics this week. This was after his movement won the most seats in last year’s election, which was celebrated as a blow to Iranian candidates. The anti-Iranian “Tishreen” protesters, with their slogan “Iran out”, are another predominantly Shiite movement. They are what you might call ordinary Iraqis with ordinary demands and boycotted the elections. Although unarmed, their influence and regional ties to other anti-IRGC protests in Lebanon and Iran itself should not be underestimated.
Until this week, it all looked like a serious political crisis managed within a democratic framework. Today it looks like America’s January 6 on steroids, with the Green Zone – the seat of government and parliament – stormed and other militias claiming to be ready to defend it. It looks like an internal conflict within the Shia community in Iraq, with various pro or anti-Iranian factions in the country. The state seems powerless and its institutions weak.
There are too many problems to digest in the last two decades of Iraqi history since the US invasion and the growth of Iranian influence. It is also impossible to predict the consequences of the entry into the scene of the Iranian factions of the Popular Mobilization Units like Kata’ib Hezbollah and the clashes with the Sadrists and the protesters of Tishreen. The conflict could also extend beyond a simple inter-Shiite civil war.
Al-Sadr remains the main character. His family has deep ties to Iran and there is much to be grateful to the mullahs. However, he is now seen as a nationalist critical of Iran’s role. In the long run, there will be mediations, winners and losers, but what matters is how the conflict is resolved and which regional power emerges as having gained more influence.

What matters is how the conflict is resolved and which regional power will emerge as having gained more influence.

Nadim Shehadi

The experience of the intra-Shia conflict in Lebanon can help illustrate the dynamics of the different local and regional actors and give it perspective. Between April 1988 and November 1990, there was intense conflict which erupted into clashes between Amal and Hezbollah, the two main Shia parties in Lebanon. The fiercest battles waged by Shia factions in the Lebanese Civil War were against each other. The same goes for clashes between Christian militias and Palestinian factions around the same time.
Thousands of people were killed or injured in the brothers’ war. It began primarily as a battle for territory, with Hezbollah being accused of kidnapping UN workers and later Colonel William Higgins, an American UN observer, from Amal territory as he had just returned from a meeting with officials from Amal. The fighting has spread across the country, from Beirut to the south and the Bekaa. The rivalry deepened, causing all sorts of problems to emerge within the community. At the time, Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, described Hezbollah as Dracula because he lived on blood.
Peace was finally restored thanks to an agreement brokered by Iran and Syria, which were in fact the godfathers of the two parties. Saudi Arabia was the main broker in the Taif Accord in 1989. It was an agreement between all Lebanese factions that ended the 15-year-old civil war.
The settlement included a pact that combined the political activities of both parties and gave rise to what became known as the Shiite duo of Amal and Hezbollah. Together, they established almost absolute hegemony over the community. They presented joint lists in the elections which effectively gave them full control of the 27 members of parliament who represent the community in the assembly. This gave them an informal veto: in a system based on power sharing, it would be impossible to make important decisions by excluding representatives of a large community. Their combined vote also allowed them to guarantee the electoral success of any non-Shia candidate on their lists.
Later, in 2006, their electoral power enabled them to conclude a pact with General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The duo’s veto power was cemented in the 2008 Doha accord, which came after an 18-month occupation of central Beirut and an attack on the city by blackshirted Hezbollah militiamen. Armed with this right of veto, Hezbollah and its allies could paralyze the country for months.
In 2016, after 29 months of paralysis with no legislative elections, no government and no president, the duo managed to elect their ally Aoun as president, giving him almost total control over the state in Lebanon.
Thus, Iran’s de facto control of Lebanon was systematically achieved through a step-by-step process using a combination of violence, assassinations, paralysis and alliance building. There are also similarities with Iran, where the IRGC took control by liquidating all other elements of the 1979 revolution.
The moral of the story is that it may be too early to celebrate the disappearance of Iranian power in Iraq because of the anti-Iranian slogans of protesters and demonstrators. If Tehran can reconcile with Al-Sadr and create a situation similar to the Shiite duo between him and the PMU, he can regain all the power he may have lost over the past two years. The possible mediators of the intra-Shia conflict are Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, based in the holy city of Najaf, and PMU leaders loyal to Iran.
Regional rivalries are not only about the conduct of war, but also about who negotiates peace and on what terms.

Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist.
Twitter: @Confusezeus

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News

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