Since 8 July, southern Iraq and Baghdad have been gripped by a spate of protests, which have left at least 11 dead and dozens more injured. The protests have variously been attributed to a lack of employment opportunities in the area, frequent power cuts, corruption and a lack of access to clean drinking water. The protests come as Iraqi parliamentarians struggle to form a new government in the wake of the contested 12 May election.
While Iraq has consistently struggled economically since the downfall of the Baathist regime, development has been especially grim in the Shia-dominated southern and eastern regions. Although accurate data is often unavailable, the standard of living in Basra and its surrounds is significantly lower than much of the rest of the country, despite the region producing more than half of Iraq’s oil and gas.
Alarmingly, living conditions continue to decline, not only in the south, but also around the country, with older infrastructure in a poor state of repair and conflict threatening food and water systems. In areas where protests have taken place, damage to electricity-generating infrastructure has led to persistent power cuts, leaving the region unable to cope with a severe drought.
Iran became a target for the demonstrators’ ire as the protests spread. On 13 July, protesters stormed Najaf Airport, ransacking Iranian planes. Other demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of pro-Iranian militia forces and targeted every pro-Iran Shia party office (excluding that of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has vociferously denounced Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs). Fuelling the animosity, on 2 July, Tehran stopped the supply of 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Iraq, citing outstanding debts owed by Baghdad. This action has compounded the ongoing energy shortages in Basra and southern Iraq.
Iranian influence in Iraq has become all-encompassing over the last decade. Iran provides economic support and trade goods to Iraq, while Iran-trained militias have become a permanent security fixture in Iraq. Its influence extends beyond economic and military affairs to include Iraqi politics as well. Typically, Iran has preferred a weak Iraqi state, with a centralised Shia government. To maintain this state of affairs, Tehran maintains direct influence over a number of Iraq’s most prominent Shia politicians. It even managed to organise a coalition to block the appointment of Ayad Allawi as Prime Minister after the 2010 elections, in favour of the pro-Iran Nouri al-Maliki. Iran allegedly orchestrated a number of crises in Iraq, which it later helped to solve, including support for Sadr’s militias during the US-led occupation.
It is difficult to judge the extent to which Iran is involved in the current spate of protests (and conditions in southern Iraq certainly explain expressions of popular discontent). Its move to cut Iraq’s power supply, however, has not only come as Sadr’s victory threatens to move Iraq towards other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, but also as the US is preparing to impose sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Additionally, any shocks to Iraq’s oil production would benefit Iran by demonstrating that Iraqi oil cannot replace its own, more stable production. Further destabilisation in Iraq would also provide Iran with an easy opportunity to smuggle oil and other goods that are subject to sanctions. Analysts have also suggested that the recent power restriction has been a deliberate demonstration by Iran that it can create problems for the US in the Middle East.
As the protests continue to spread, Iraq’s struggle to form a governing coalition has become increasingly vital. While Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged US$3 billion ($4 billion) in funds for the region and promised to complete a series of infrastructure projects in an attempt to bring calm, the protests have spread beyond the south and into the capital.
An injection of infrastructure and investment could ease conditions in southern Iraq and possibly appease the protesters. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have offered to supply electricity to Iraq in Iran’s place, but until a permanent government has been formed, poor governance will continue to undermine efforts to bring the situation under control.