Why Iran's leaders should worry about Iraq

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with thousands of students in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. Khamenei said his country has outmaneuvered the United States in the four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with thousands of students in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. Khamenei said his country has outmaneuvered the United States in the four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP).

Iran’s rulers should be watching the chaos breaking out in Iraq carefully because they could be next. Unlike previous outbreaks of violence in Iraq, the current troubles are unrelated to Sunni-Shia problems. The riots include youths and working-class people of all religious confessions. The root cause of the discontent is poor governance by the Shiite ruling elites and the ayatollahs who abate and fund them.

When the United States and its coalition allies toppled the primarily Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it was assumed that the majority Shiite population would opt for a democratic form of government, and that is what most Iraqis probably did desire no matter what their religious persuasion might be. What those American planners did not take into account was the fact that both Iraqi and Iranian politics are driven by the views and wealth of senior ayatollahs whose power and land holdings are inherited by dint of direct descent from the prophet Muhammad. In other words, the aristocracy of the Shia faith is every bit as dynastic as that of European pre-revolutionary Bourbons and Romanovs. Just below the ayatollahs are the Shiite elites who serve them and are as inbred as their theocratic masters in both nations.

Shiite elites treat government offices in both Iran and Iraq as sinecures, not as public trusts. Corruption is rampant. The garbage doesn’t get picked up, the streets don’t get cleaned and public utilities are ill-managed except in elite compounds such as the Green Zone. The majority of the populations in both nations are treated as peasants were in 18th-century France and feudal Europe. The elites ride in conspicuous luxury in land cruisers while a tuk-tuk driver gets by on $20 a month. This is why the humble three-wheeled tuk-tuk has become the symbol of the current Iraqi revolutionary movement. In rural areas, farmers also resent the predatory pricing of Iranian food products which is driving farmers into increased poverty. The fact that the government does not protect national products and seems to coddle the Iranians is another source of discontent.

It would be a mistake to carry the Iraq-Iran analogy too far. The majority Shiite, Iraqis are Arabs and Iranians Persian. Some of the discontent with the Baghdad leadership is nationalistic resentment against Persian influence in Iraqi governance. In addition, the current Iraqi government cannot crack down too hard on the protesters. So far, the Shiite Popular Mobilization militias have largely sided with the protest movement. Although the senior officers in the regular army and government security forces are largely political appointees of the Shia elites, they realize that there are limits to what their soldiers will do to their brothers and sisters in the streets. Most know enough history to want to avoid being shot from behind as did their predecessors in the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions.

The situation in Iran is different. The senior officers, and many of the rank and file in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, have a vested interest in the Tehran government as the guard owns much of the defense and nuclear industry. The guard has shown no compunction in the past in brutally suppressing protests that appear on the verge of getting out of control. The Iranians still have the Americans to blame for much of their own self-inflicted problems, where the Iraqi public lays much of the blame on Iran.

None of that should give the ayatollahs and the other old men who largely rule Iran too much comfort. The vast majority of Iraqis now cannot remember Saddam and very few Iranians remember the shah. But the youth in both counties have enough access to the worldwide web to know that they are lagging far behind their contemporaries in the rest of the Middle East, much less Asia and even Africa. The ayatollahs and their henchmen in both countries should be very afraid.

Both Iraq and Iran are democracies on paper, but in neither can a true reformist party get on the ballot without the approval of the ayatollahs or their elite cronies. It would be easier for the government in Baghdad to reform than in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is not in a compromising mood, and the ayatollahs and government bureaucrats know that. The guard will sacrifice them before losing power. The rulers in both counties have a tiger by the tail. When a popular uprising takes place, the heads of government all too often find their heads on a stake.

Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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