Protesters in Lebanon and Iraq have been venting their fury at Iran, which is accused of practically running their countries. Tehran is not afraid to come down hard on its domestic opponents.
For the past several weeks, Iraq and Lebanon have become the settings of major popular protests: a mix of people, coming from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, are rising up against rulers who are rotten, aloof and have long fanned sectarian discord to keep themselves in power. What we may be witnessing is a kind of Arab Spring 3.0.
The first round was in 2010, with its dismal results: Syria, Yemen and Libya are collapsing, and Egypt quickly turned around to restore a military regime. Tunisia, which has found its path to democracy and inclusion, is the admirable exception. The second wave of spring came in 2018 and is still a work in process. It overthrew the dictators of Sudan and Algeria, even as the countries' military are clinging to power for dear life.
Lebanon and Iraq have governments controlled, more or less, by Tehran. For the Lebanese, the terrorist organization Hezbollah, a militia far stronger than the army, is part of the government; while in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, Shia militias and political parties beholden to Tehran have taken over and now face public ire.
Both countries have suffered from grave deficiencies in governance, from corruption, sectarianism, dilapidated public services, power cuts, rampant joblessness, trash left on the streets and massive theft of young people's hopes.
Iran will use extreme force if necessary.
So the now brazen protesters are directing their rage at Iran, which they accuse of "controlling the country," incidentally reopening a historical division between Arab and Iranian
Shias. They have burned pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and attacked its consulate in Kerbala while chanting slogans against Iran and the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. In Lebanon, Hezbollah "black shirts' riding motorbikes have attacked protesters, provoking clashes with the army, which still maintains the population's respect.
For Iran, these protests are a challenge to its dominance in both countries, which is why Tehran will seek to block any changes threatening its hegemony and use extreme force if need be. Its proxy militias have been blamed for the 250 or so deaths among Iraqi protesters. In their honor, the residents of Najaf, a sacred city for all Shias, renamed one avenue from "Ayatollah Khomeini," the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, to "Martyrs of October."
The regime of the ayatollahs brutally crushed protests by Iranians in 2009, when fraudulent electoral results robbed the presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Musavi of a likely victory. Iraq and Lebanon are its regional armor, with another uncertain piece tucked inside: Syria. Rest assured, Iran will not let any of them go away.