How Deep Is Anti-Iranian Sentiment in Iraq?

Very deep. Of course “anti-Iranian sentiment” is a somewhat elastic term. I think many Iraqis are anti-Iranian in a way that leans more toward resentment rather than toward the ideological enmity that characterizes neoconservative anti-Iranian punditry. More importantly, anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq today—and as I said, it runs very deep—is ultimately a function of anger with the Iraqi political system. This causality of grievance is important to keep in mind. The target of rage today is the Iraqi political order and the ruling oligarchy. Anti-Iranian sentiment is a by-product of this anti-systemic rage, which is why describing the protests as anti-Iranian with little further qualification is so problematic.

Much of the corruption and inefficiency that have gutted public institutions and disenfranchised so many Iraqis would continue to flourish with or without the Iranians. Nevertheless, Iran is quite rightly seen by many Iraqis as the chief guarantor and beneficiary of the political order. Anti-Iranian sentiment is part of a broader popular rejection of foreign interference of any kind. However, Iran inevitably takes the lion’s share of resentment given the fact that it is by far the most influential external actor in Iraq.

Iraqis resent the fact that an Iranian general is one of the key arbiters of Iraqi political disputes and that so many of Iraq’s most important political factions seem ready to do Iran’s bidding even if it is at Iraq’s expense. Iran’s assets and allies have long been the most powerful political forces in Iraqi politics. Consequently, Iran’s cultural, political, and security footprint in Iraq has steadily expanded over the years. Anger with the political system as it is today will inevitably have an anti-Iranian element given Iran’s role in the politics of Iraq.

Oula Kadhum | Post-doctoral fellow at the University of Birmingham, teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where she specializes in diaspora and Middle Eastern politics

Acknowledging anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq in no way explains the socioeconomic and systemic problems at the heart of the Iraqi protest movement. Yet there’s no point in denying it exists, and it is deep. Protestors have stormed the Iranian Consulate in Karbala and posters of Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei have been burned—scenes which only weeks ago would have been unthinkable.

This strong reaction is due to four factors. First, Iranian infiltration in Iraq’s domestic affairs has reached alarming levels. Political appointments are routinely approved in Iran and for many Iraqis it often appears that Tehran is pulling Iraq’s political strings while simultaneously using the country for its proxy wars.

Second, Iran’s interference through Iranian-backed politicians and militias has fortified Iraq’s corrupt ethnosectarian system, which is precisely what the protestors want to overhaul. Through this divisive system ministers and militias have lined their pockets and engaged in criminal activities to uphold the status quo rather than invest in Iraq’s state institutions and economy.

Third, Iranian-backed militias, previously seen as heroes in the fight against the Islamic State, are now regarded as the state’s tools of oppression. Many stand accused of violence against protestors, both currently and in Basra last year.

Fourth, Iranian influence has also been felt culturally, with posters of Iranian religious figures pervasive, especially in southern Shi‘a cities. Many Iraqis resent the imposition of Iranian Shi‘ism, especially as it reinforces Iran’s religious claim to being the leader of the Shi’a world, a view contested in Iraq.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi | Doctoral candidate at Swansea University, founder of islamicstatearchives.com

Anti-Iranian sentiment has manifested itself in multiple ways during the recent rounds of Iraqi protests. Besides the appearance of anti-Iranian slogans that have repeatedly turned up, the protests have featured more extensive and open violence against Iranian assets and interests than in past demonstrations and unrest. In multiple governorates, protesters have burned bases of Iranian-supported factions within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) such as ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, and Harakat al-Abdal. Even more notably, demonstrators in the holy city of Karbala attacked the Iranian Consulate.

Unsurprisingly, many of those in the Iranian-backed elements of the PMF have hinted at some sort of conspiracy behind the protests. Those PMF factions may have enjoyed a boost in legitimacy as part of the wider PMF phenomenon when the Islamic State was seen as an existential threat. However, the recession of that threat has made all the more apparent their failure to deliver improvements in the daily lives of citizens, such as job prospects and basic services.

These events are a reminder that anti-Iranian sentiment crosses sectarian divides in Iraq rather than just being the preserve of the country’s Sunnis. However, it would be a mistake to view anti-Iranian sentiment as running so deep that the current protests constitute a “revolt against Iran.” Instead, it is more accurate to characterize the protests as a wholesale rejection of the post-2003 order. Since Iran and its clients in Iraq (among others) have managed to exploit this order for their own benefit at the expense of the wider population, it is unsurprising that the anger is partly taken out on them.

Harith Hasan | Nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

The current protests in Iraq were not primarily about Iran or meant to be anti-Iranian, but are opposed to the political setting in which Iran has deeply invested. Previously, Iran and the United States, in their non-zero-sum game, had been the most influential foreign powers in Iraq, in a context of sectarian divisions that had largely shaped political loyalties. This had weakened grassroots mobilization that was cross-sectarian or non-sectarian. Iran-allied groups portrayed Tehran’s role as necessary to counter the attempts of Washington and its regional allies to deprive the Shi‘a majority of its leading role in post-2003 Iraq. This was convincing to many Shi‘a given that sectarianization had molded internal and regional politics after 2003.

Now, in a post-sectarian context after the defeat of the Islamic State and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, socioeconomic conditions and the demands for better governance have become the new issues around which mobilization is taking place. There is an increasing awareness among Iraqis that Iran is the main foreign power that not only supports the dominant Shi‘a factions, but also seeks to weaken the Iraqi state from within by empowering militias and warlords. This awareness has been boosted by the reported role of these militias in the killing of protesters and by the attempt of Iranian-allied groups to promote a narrative portraying the protests as a foreign conspiracy.

The more Iran enables the ruling factions in resisting real change in how Iraq is governed, the more anti-Iranian sentiments will be part of the protestors’ and their sympathizers’ discourse and perception.

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