Iranian Generals in Iraq, Hezbollah Thugs in Lebanon: Tehran Demonstrates How to Snuff Out Dissent

A month ago, a little after the mass protests began in Iraq against the government, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani arrived on a night flight at the Baghdad airport. Soleimani continued on in a helicopter from the airport to the heart of the Green Zone in Baghdad, the area where the Iraqi government ministries and defense establishment are located – alongside the American Embassy, according to a report from The Associated Press. 

Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, surprised a group of senior officials in the Iraqi security forces when he showed up to run a meeting supposed to be led by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. 

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 45

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 45Haaretz

AP journalists managed to speak with two Iraqi senior officials who took part in the meeting, or received a report later on what happened. The officials said Soleimani told the Iraqi participants in the meeting: “We in Iran know how to deal with protests.” The Iraqis got to work over the next few days: Snipers, it seems members of the Shi’ite militias, opened fire on protesters. About 150 demonstrators were killed. The protests resumed a week ago, after a pause of a few weeks – and dozens were once again killed across Iraq. 

Similar to the protests that began in mid-October in Lebanon, the Iraqi protests expressed discontent with the internal political scene – the government’s failure in economic matters, corruption and spending money on powerful sectors and groups, such as the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. A certain amount of anti-Iranian sentiment was lurking in the background: Protesters in both countries called on Tehran to stop intervening in their internal affairs. In Iraq they even burned Iranian flags and protested in front of the Iranian consulate in Karbala, a holy city for Shi’ites.

In Lebanon, too, Hezbollah is working to repress the protests, but so far it has not used firearms to do so. Hezbollah sent its thugs on motorcycles, armed with truncheons, to battle protesters and scare them off. For now, they have failed. In the middle of the week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the senior partner with Hezbollah in the government coalition, announced his resignation in the face of the protests.

A protester flashes the victory sign while anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, October 31, 2019.Hadi Mizban,AP

Soleimani was right. The Iranians do have experience in putting down wide-scale public protests. In 2009, about a year and a half before the Arab Spring broke out, the authorities in Tehran harshly put down mass demonstrations that began in the wake of claims of vote fraud in the presidential election. The Green Revolution failed. But so far the Iranians have found it hard to pass on this professional knowhow to their allies in Baghdad and Beirut. 

The protests are continuing, and in Iraq they have led to quite a lot of bloodshed. The fall of the government in Beirut seems to worry Tehran and its man in Beirut, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. In his most recent speeches, Nasrallah accused the United States and Israel of supporting the protests from behind the scenes. On Wednesday, the website of Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, repeated these claims.