Geopolitics

How Iran's Regional Meddling Could Eventually Backfire

In Lebanon and Iraq, two countries that Iran's clerical regime has long tried to control, some Shias are fed up with Tehran's machinations and affiliated militia groups.

Tattooed fighter in Qandil, Iraq
Tattooed fighter in Qandil, Iraq
Ahmad Ra'fat

-Analysis-

There is no end for now to the rocket and missile attacks on U.S. and Western coalition forces in Iraq, where six rockets were fired in recent days onto Erbil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of them landed on a Kurdish Democratic Party camp inside Iran.

So far, no group has officially claimed responsibility for the attacks. But security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan are certain they were fired from a van in the village of Sheikh Amir, used as a base by members of the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia.

The attack on Erbil comes at a time when the United States is planning to close its embassy in Baghdad. It also took place just one hour after the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi assured 25 Western and Arab diplomatic representatives that his government would do everything to protect diplomatic premises.

The Iraqi government is gravely concerned with the planned departure of U.S. and coalition forces, and al-Kadhimi's foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, believes that armed or radical groups in Iraq will interpret the Western withdrawal from Iraq as a victory, and use it to attain their goals.

The 25 representatives who met with al-Kadhimi, including the ambassadors of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Italy and Saudi Arabia, voiced support for the prime minister's security measures and confirmed that their respective countries want to enhance security cooperation with Iraq.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the U.S. could not tolerate attacks on its personnel and cited Iran-backed militias as the chief threat to Iraq's stability. There have been more than 40 attacks on U.S. forces since al-Kadhimi's visit to Washington and meeting with President Donald Trump in late August.

Unlike in the past, none of the groups in the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia claimed responsibility. Nevertheless, authorities in Iraq and elsewhere have little doubt that the Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, two groups affiliated with the Quds Forces, part of the Iranian Revolutionary guards, are behind the attacks.

Time to change tack?

For some young Iraqis, these attacks have eroded faith in current leadership. And in recent weeks, a number of people — including some who participated in last October's round of protests — presented the country's electoral authority with requests to register 15 new parties to run in the early parliamentary elections set for June 2021.

"There can be no more compromise with a political system that is like wax in the Islamic Republic's hands," a member of one of these new groups, who uses the pseudonym Abu Salah for security reasons, told Kayhan London.

Police and protesters in October in Beirut — Photo: Marwan Naamani/DPA/ZUMA

"We're no longer prepared to sacrifice Iraq's national interests to the anti-Western policies and adventurism of the ayatollahs in Tehran," he added. "We have to push aside the Shia and Sunni politicians who serve the Islamic Republic's interests, but the path we've chosen is to use democratic and legal instruments, meaning elections. Unlike them, we're not going to murder opponents."

Abu Salah believes that Western states are also realizing that there's no point in compromising with Iran and pro-Tehran forces.

"They'll probably conclude it is time to cut off the Islamic Republic's hands in Iraq," he said. "Of course, there is a danger that in the final confrontation America will remove its soldiers and diplomats and leave us alone and hand us over to the Islamic Republic. And that wouldn't just have consequences for the Iraqis but also unwelcome repercussions for America and its allies in the region."

In the meantime, militias affiliated with the Quds force have taken to killing prominent Iraqi dissidents. In the last three months, more than 40 civil activists were murdered in different Iraqi cities. One of the latest victims was a 29-year-old doctor and women's rights activist, Riham Yaqoob, killed in Basra. A few days before the young woman's death, the Mehr news agency in Tehran had called her "an important agent of the soft war" against Iran.

A similar scenario

Conditions are not much different in Lebanon. French President Emmanuel Macron recently sought to ease the crisis there by working with the two Shia groups allied to Tehran— Hezbollah and Amal — to form a new government. But after Mustafa Diab, the diplomat leading the effort, gave up because of excessive pressure from those militias, Macron began to use harsher words with Hezbollah, saying that as long as it keeps fighting Israel and killing civilians in Syria to aid Bashar al-Assad it can never be a respectable party in Lebanon.

Macron did point out, however, that Tehran is not to blame entirely for Lebanon's woes. He also said that there's evidence Iran actively scuppered the formation of a new government there.

Still, Lebanon's former justice minister, Ashraf Rifi, believes France should learn from recent events and conclude that to help solve the Lebanese crisis, it must shun Hezbollah and back Shias opposed to the Islamic Republic's influence.

It should be noted that in Iraq as well in Lebanon, young Shias are at the forefront of the resistance against Tehran's puppet politicians.

Just as Shias have been leading the fight in southern Iraq to curb Tehran's influence and the activities of its affiliates, they have been active in Lebanon as well, protesting against Hezbollah in places like the Shia suburb of Dahieh in Beirut, home of the militia's chief, and in Nabatieh in southern Lebanon. The demonstrations have involved angry crowds attacking the offices of pro-Iran Shia parties.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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