The Iranian consulate in Basra, Iraq burning on Sept. 7, 2018. Photo: Essam al-Sudani/Reuters
On September 7, the citizens of Basra, Iraq, poured into the streets chanting “Iran, out!” while targeting the Iranian consulate with several rockets. These protests have, in fact, been stirring for several months, with this most recent eruption of violence in Basra serving as a microcosm of the issues Iraq, if not the rest of the Middle East, faces as the result of Iranian militarism.
The main cities one might associate with Iraq are its capital, Baghdad or possibly Mosul, for its significance in the war on ISIS; but Basra is perhaps the most important strategic territory in Iraq. It contains 70% of Iraq’s oil reserves, and is located along the southern border with Iran. For the past several months, the city’s poor have taken to the streets in increasing numbers to protest both living conditions and the growing presence of Iranian militias, with this most recent event costing the lives of 10 civilians.
The lack of employment opportunities is a pressing issue, but the disintegration of public utilities is a central concern for Basra’s impoverished citizens. Throughout the summer the electricity has repeatedly been cut off despite temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Many in the city have grown ill due to contaminated water, including EU envoy Ramon Blecua. This failure of public utilities, many believe, is a symptom of corruption caused by Iranian interference in the region.
The Washington Post writes:
Protesters said they targeted the [Iranian] consulate to vent their frustrations over abuses by Iran-backed militias in Basra, as well what they see as Tehran’s outsize influence over their city and over Iraq’s fractured politics. The demonstrators complained that the militias run rampant in Basra, kidnapping and extorting money from their opponents and creating an atmosphere of fear. They said Iran has empowered the militias to enrich themselves at the expense of the city’s residents.
Citizens attacked not only the consulate, but set fire to the offices of a Asaib Ahl al-Haq (a major Iran-backed militia), an Iran-backed political party, and the provincial government headquarters; although they have also taken to blocking streets and other acts of civil disobedience. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia mentioned here is in fact the same one that both assisted the U.S. in fighting ISIS and remains notorious for allegedly burning and shooting Sunnis in Iraq.
Fighters from a Shiite militia in Sept, 2014. Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Iranian militarism is endemic in the region, and this is only the newest chapter in a story of unfolding regional Iranian pressure. Iran’s projection in the region is far reaching, with numerous states’ independence being actively undermined. Through militias Iran has dug roots in both Iraq, as stated previously, but also Syria, where even Russia has become concerned over the Iranian presence. Iran also created Hezbollah, an internationally recognized terror group supplanting the government in southern Lebanon. In the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni Civil War can trace its roots partly to Iran’s training, funding, and arming of the rebels.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters
Iran’s massive efforts to reshape the Middle East into a constellation of Iranian satellite states has created an astonishing detente between Israel and its former enemies–including Egypt and, most significantly, Saudi Arabia. Israel has historically warned against Iran, and now the Sunni world has found itself aligning with Israel under the leadership of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has engaged in the “open secret” relations. Such shifts in the political climate of the Middle East are best captured by 50 year old day laborer and Iraqi citizen Sattar Hamdi, who says, “Iran has destabilized Basra with their armed gangs. They have the upper hand here and with the politicians in Baghdad. I’m appealing to any foreign country, even Israel, for help because we’ve already lost Iraq to Iran.”
In light of these changes to the region, and the willingness on the part of civilians and officials to receive aid from the former boogeyman Israel, a new era may be opening in the Middle East. New understanding between the Arab world and Israel appears to hold promise for the future, and hopefully such sentiments will be able to reach outside of the Middle East and vindicate Israel abroad in light of the real threat lurking in the region.