When the protests in Iran began Dec. 28, it wasn’t clear to Tehran’s regional allies whether or not to be concerned. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Syria’s defiant government, whose existence today has a lot to do with the revolutionary establishment’s decision to fight on their side, all had many reasons to think of developments in Tehran as if they were occurring in Beirut, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and Damascus. To them, if it rains in Iran, opening umbrellas is necessary wherever they are.
To these countries, the Islamic Republic is more than just financial and political support. To them, Iran is the flag bearer of a project — the “Resistance Axis,” which has been in open confrontation with several rivals on different levels. Over the past four decades, this axis was in the building process and it was introduced gradually to the masses as an alternative to all other agendas and paths in the region. As Iran is the backbone of the axis, whenever Iran is subject to any danger, then all of the allies are in danger. This is one main reason to look at the Iranian unrest from a regional perspective.
Moreover, some of the slogans raised in the protests that caught the attention of international and regional media were those that denounced Iran’s regional policy, mainly support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah and Palestinian factions fighting against Israel. This dismay is actually what you normally hear from your local taxi driver in Tehran anytime the issue is raised. However, a poll by the University of Maryland suggests this is not what most Iranians think. The poll, conducted between December 2016 and June 2017, shows that more than 55% of Iranians approve of their country’s foreign agenda; this includes supporting Hezbollah, helping Assad and not recognizing Israel. This could be a reason for Tehran’s allies to take a breath in the midst of the storm.
Indeed, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was one of the first to appear on TV to address his supporters on the situation in Iran. In a Jan. 2 interview, Nasrallah played down the protests, saying, “In Iran, there is nothing to worry about and the issue is being taken seriously. … The size of the protests is not large.” The 57-year-old Hezbollah leader added, “What is happening in Iran is being well-contained and is not comparable with what happened in 2009. … The problem in Iran now is not political like what happened in 2009,” referring to the protests against the 2009 election results. Nasrallah added, “America, Israel and Saudi Arabia have entered the crisis in Iran.”
Nasrallah’s statement was aimed at assuring his base that the Islamic Republic wasn’t in danger. He stressed that if there is a problem, then it’s related to people’s grievances and is being made into a large issue by enemies of Iran and the Resistance Axis, namely the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. This rhetoric intersects with Iraqi Vice President and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s viewpoint on the protests. Maliki regarded them as “an internal issue,” adding that Iran’s enemies “are attempting to sow riots and confusion.” Other allies of Tehran have shared the same thoughts.
Behind closed doors, however, unrest is always a reason for concern. To Hezbollah, Iran isn’t an ally, it’s more like the ideological mother and the essence from where the organization’s potency is derived — like what the Soviet Union meant to communist parties around the world. On various occasions, Nasrallah has repeated in his speeches that Hezbollah receives full support from Iran. The last time was during a speech on July 24, 2016, when he said in response to warnings that Lebanese banks might come under sanctions because of Hezbollah’s money, “We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He added, “As long as Iran has money, we have money.”
The Lebanese group is the most vulnerable among the allies. The blend of Hezbollah’s Lebanese model and its relationship with Iran are unparalleled in the world of political and military organizations. Though displaying gradual integration into the Lebanese political system since 2005, the group is fully financed and equipped by Iran. While it receives all of this support from the revolutionary establishment, it is not part of the Iranian bureaucratic system; hence, any change that might occur in Iran, any slight change in the country’s foreign policy, could have dire implications for Hezbollah’s future.
As for the PMU in Iraq, the situation is completely different. Worries over the Iranian protests are ideologically driven and confined only to groups within the PMU that share Iran’s doctrine of guardianship of the Islamic jurist. The threat for these entities isn’t existential, mainly since the PMU is part of the Iraqi military and the PMU budget is dependent on the Iraqi government’s budget and donations by the Shiite clergy in Najaf. Hence, whatever changes in Iran, the Iraqi PMU, though recently founded, has many more opportunities to accustom itself to changes than Hezbollah, which might have to come up with deep structural changes to be able to survive.
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