‘We’re going to pay for it’: Iran and its allies preparing to exploit Soleimani’s killing to crush domestic opposition

Fears Qassem Soleimani’s killing will spell trouble for protest movements in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran

Borzou Daragahi,Negar Mortazavi
Friday 10 January 2020 18:10
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Iran and its allies are preparing to exploit the killings of Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi colleague at the hands of the United States to crush dissenters and consolidate political power across the Middle East.

In Iraq, the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, which came under missile fire by the Americans in the days before the assassination of the Iranian commander, issued a statement tarring those who have for weeks been demanding democracy and decent governance in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as pro-American dupes.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in a speech this week commemorating Soleimani, smeared anti-government protesters as “traitors” and “enemy operatives”.

In Lebanon, where protesters have for weeks been demonstrating against a ruling clique that includes Iran’s allies Hezbollah, many fear the group’s allies will now be more emboldened to carry out violent attacks. During the mass demonstrations, Hezbollah and its allies have targeted pro-democracy protesters, using batons against the crowds and destroying protest tents.

“It was happening before the killing of Qassem Soleimani but we’re expecting a fiercer reaction,” Nadine Farghal, a lawyer and activist in Beirut, told The Independent.

“No one was happy when Soleimani was killed; we were terrified. It wasn’t like a sense of victory because it was very clear to us that one way or another we’re going to pay for it.”

Iran and its allies hardly needed the excuse of Soleimani’s controversial assassination in a 3 January airstrike to use brutal force to suppress pro-democracy aspirations.

Iranian security forces killed at least 170 people and as many as 1,000 during protests that followed the sudden spike in fuel prices last November. Over the last few months, masked Iraqi Shia militiamen have shot dead hundreds of protesters throughout the country, almost all of them members of the same sect. Hezbollah and its thuggish allies in the Amal movement have taken to Lebanese protesters with truncheons.

Iranian-allied Houthi rebels who control the Yemeni capital Sana’a impose tight restrictions on speech and civil liberties.

Despite the violence, the underlying corruption, political repression and gross mismanagement driving protesters into the streets persist. On Friday, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to reject foreign interference in the country, some chanting slogans against Iran.

But Soleimani’s killing also gives Iranian authorities and their backers an opening, a path to regaining control of the streets and seizing the political narrative, supplanting rage against authoritarian regimes with the anti-Americanism that has long resonated among many quarters in the Middle East.

“Soleimani was an international figure,” said Emre Ersin, associate professor of international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul. “People are genuinely touched by his death, and this will play into the hands of those seeking to stop the protests.”

Thus far Iran and its surrogates have yet to strike at protesters. But they are clearly preparing the groundwork.

In Iran, reformist activists say hardliners have started gearing up to close the political space. On Friday, an adviser to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani bluntly warned Persian-language journalists not to report on allegations that Tehran may have shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane.

“Even by looking at people’s Twitter posts you can tell that they are already concerned about what they write,” a reformist journalist in Iran said.

While Hezbollah itself may focus its attention on filling in the vacuum created by Soleimani’s demise and using paramilitary means to respond to the US throughout the region, the killing gives some breathing space to its domestic political allies, including Amal and the Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement.

“This will create a larger room for manoeuvre, for those two to impose their demands on the others,” said Randa Salim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington who frequently travels to the regions and meets with senior officials.

As the throngs that protested in Baghdad on Friday showed, the gambit to use Soleimani’s death to consolidate power may fail.

“We remain steadfast even after 100 days of protests, killings, kidnappings, teargas canisters, explosions, forced disappearances, armed attacks and arrests and despite the attempts of all political parties to end the protests,” Omar Habeeb wrote on Twitter.

But the killing has shifted the mood, at least in some quarters, and given Tehran and its allies an opportunity to build momentum.

“What is clear right now,” said Hamzeh Ghalebi, a political analyst and onetime advisor to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an opposition figure and former presidential candidate in Iran, “is that national unity has increased in the face of a foreign threat.”

Eventually, the protesters may regain momentum and perhaps emerge more powerful, without the glue of a figure like Soleimani holding Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance” together. “Because of the importance of Soleimani’s personal connections to Iran’s international proxies, there is a chance for the anti-Iran movements to grow even stronger,” said Ali Bakeer, a political analyst based in Ankara. “Maybe not in the current moment, because the emotions are still there. But I don’t think this emotional state will last long.”

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