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Iran’s 'Worst Nightmare' Coming True: Middle Eastern Shiites Rise Up Against It

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a statement in the capital Tehran on Jan. 9, 2018. (SalamPix/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images)

The regime in Tehran is in lots of trouble these days. As U.S. sanctions tighten, at least a quarter of Iran’s oil rigs are now out of action, “dealing a potentially long-term blow to its oil industry.” The coronavirus “has now spread to every province in the country and people are fearful that the true scale of the outbreak is even worse than is being disclosed.”

And if those and other severe pressures aren’t enough, Shiites in countries that Shiite Iran seeks to dominate are now telling Iran to go home and get off their backs.

That’s the story told by Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese expat and an analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East policy:

In Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and inside Iran itself—the countries that fall along the Shia Crescent—the people have realized that the enemy is within. It’s their own governments that have allowed the Iranian regime to take over the state and its institutions…. The Shia Crescent…is finally turning against the Iranian regime and its proxies.

Calling this development “Iran’s worst nightmare,” Ghaddar says:

[It] started when the Iraqis—mostly in Shia towns and cities—started to chant “Iran, out out, Iraq free, free,” and when the Lebanese took to the streets with one unifying slogan: “All of you means all of you.” This nightmare became a serious challenge when Iraqi protestors set Iranian consulates on fire and when Lebanese protestors included [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah among the failed Lebanese political figures, and blamed Hezbollah for Lebanon’s calamities.

Iran, of course, has “responded” in the only way it knows—with “brutal crackdowns.” And yet:

It is going to be very difficult for Iran and its proxies to come back from this. The Shia in these countries no longer believe that the Iranian ideology is the solution or that its strategy to defeat Israel and the US will elevate them from poverty and hunger.

As the U.S. sanctions on Iran “started to squeeze its finances,” Iran told the Lebanese and Iraqi Shia communities “that it is time for them to pay the price for the years of free services, political empowerment and quick military victories.” But “many Shia in Lebanon and Iraq…have already paid the price for Iran’s hegemony, [and] the Shia Crescent no longer appeals to the Shia.”

The picture of a tottering Iranian regime scaling back its aid to its proxies—or would-be proxies—is confirmed by Amir Taheri, an Iranian expat, regime opponent, and prolific author and columnist.

“Badly hit by cash-flow problems,” he notes,

the regime has been forced to cut down payments to regional clients in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Gaza. This has led to a reduction in Lebanese Hezbollah’s military presence in Syria while the Houthis in Yemen have also gone into slow-motion mode. Almost all offices in 30 Iranian towns and cities recruiting “volunteers” to fight in Syria, ostensibly to protect Shiite shrines, have been closed or downgraded into a symbolic presence.

The Islamic Republic has also stopped raising new fighting units of Afghan and Pakistan mercenaries….

Hillel Frisch, an analyst with Israel’s BESA think tank, underlines Iran’s role as regional epicenter of the coronavirus. Or as Frisch puts it:

Iran’s Shiite crescent, which until recently reflected its imperial reach into the Arab world, has now become a vector for the spread of COVID-19….

A study released on Feb. 24 by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota inadvertently revealed how salient Iran’s religious ties to Shiite communities in Arab states have been and continue to be in the spread of the epidemic.

The five Middle Eastern countries that first reported COVID-19 cases—Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman—all have substantial Shiite populations, and all the cases cited are clearly linked to Iran. The first confirmed case in Afghanistan was flagged in Herat province, which is in the country’s west on the Iranian border. Another sufferer had recently returned from the city of Qom, Iran’s Shiite religious center…. The first Bahraini to be confirmed as having succumbed to COVID-19 had also just been in Iran, as had all three cases first reported in Kuwait, Iraq and Oman.

The ramifications of this situation, Frisch says, are “more than medical”:

The Islamic Republic has seen wide-scale protests in Iraq and Lebanon against regimes it warmly supports. In Iraq in particular, Iranian consulates have become targets of protester anger.

Iran’s failure to control its COVID-19 problem will hardly endear it to protesters in Iraq and Lebanon, many of whom feel their states are being damaged by Iran’s involvement in their domestic affairs….

That imperialism comes at a price could have been predicted. Not so COVID-19 and its ramifications, and least of all its effect on the Iranian Shiite crescent—a crescent that, true to form, is fast turning into a boomerang headed back into the heart of the Islamic Republic.

The news about Iran’s weakening hold on its would-be empire should not obscure the fact that Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons and remains a menace to the region and the world. But these tidings reinforce the importance of continuing the Trump administration’s pressure on a regime that for 40 years has been a source of hatred, terror, and war—and, like other radical regimes before it, is not invincible.