The recent confrontation is rendering the situation more volatile in the entire Middle East and beyond, but its axis, glowing core and the principal battlefield will likely be Iraq, Marin Mõttus writes.
A diplomat of a Middle Eastern country told me a few years ago that during a conversation with an Iranian colleague of theirs the latter "accidentally" made a politically incorrect remark when they said: "We already control three Arab capitals – Baghdad, Beirut and Sana – and will soon take over a fourth – Damascus."
Because I have now read the same sentence in a few articles and even books, I doubt this loose-lipped diplomat ever really existed. Rather, it is a Middle Eastern meme that is never presented as Iran's official position but the awed recollection of which in conversations benefits Tehran.
General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in Baghdad on Friday, was the living embodiment of that meme.
The special Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that served under Soleimani has spent decades reshaping the Middle East based on Iranian interests. Even though the Islamic republic's regime is martial in its statements and rules with an iron fist, Iran is not a country looking to rush headlong into a conventional war.
Tehran's strategy in the Middle East is increasingly being described as an asymmetric struggle. In place of a direct conflict, Tehran grows its influence through indirect means, from fanning tensions to weakening hostile and arming friendly groups of citizens in the region. Soleimani was a man who knew very well how to convince other nations to fight for his country's interests, and he was not picky about how he went about it.
Iran's strategy for the previous decades has been to try and become the leader and speaker for the global Shia community that is also its platform for fighting the U.S. and other Western enemies.
Of the world's Muslims, 85 percent are Sunni and just 15 percent Shia, which is why the latter have always accused the former of persecution and opression. This victim mentality is the other side, so to speak, of the aforementioned meme and lends moral support to the Islamic republic's aggressive image.
On the other hand, we must admit here in the West that our knowledge of Shia mentality and cast of mind are beyond modest; with the exception of a few experts, most of us casually draw an equals sign between Iran and Shia Islam. How many in Estonia have thought about the fact that Azerbaijanis form one of the most important Shia groups, one that was part of the same empire as us for 50 years…
Iran functions well in the conditions of sectarian opposition for which Tehran has effective weapons both literally and figuratively speaking. That is why both Lebanon and Iraq – countries made up of different religious communities – have served as suitable battlegrounds for Iran's brand of asymmetric warfare.
However, this fall's protests in both countries – increasingly referred to as the second wave of the Arab Spring – have gone beyond the parameters of sectarian conflict. They can no longer be directly associated with the Sunni-Shia conflict or any political party. People are protesting the political elite's inefficiency, poor public services, crippling corruption and general lack of order citizens have had enough of.
Pro-Iranian forces have thrown their weight in with governments and are opposing the protests in both countries. Supporters of Lebanese Hezbollah attacked protesters in the center of Beirut, turning the recently peaceful protests violent in November.
Hezbollah, created as a radical armed group with support from Iran in 1985, has settled in nicely in Lebanon's sectarian balance of powers, is participating in politics and playing an increasingly important role in the economy.
However, the system itself is breaking down, and Hezbollah – one of Iran's most successful weapons in its asymmetric struggle – lost ground among the sharper residents of Lebanon for beating on protesters.
The stakes are higher in Iraq. Here lies the Shia holy city of Karbala where the first Shia martyr, the legendary Hussein died. For Shia Muslims, Karbala is akin to Mecca. It hosts tens of millions of pilgrims every year who flock to the city forty days after the death anniversary of Hussein.
The spiritual leader of Iraqi Shias, 89-year-old ayatollah Ali al-Sistani lives an hour's drive from Karbala in Najaf. Al-Sistani is not officially part of the Iraqi ruling hierarchy, while no government has been set up without his approval since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Ayatollah al-Sistani has been voicing support for protesters from the first. In doing so, he has supported the Iraqi people's desire to get rid of an elite whose rule has largely been ensured by Iranian arms and in Iranian interests.
Like the leaders of Iraq, al-Sistani condemned the killing of Qasem Soleimani but proceeded to urge constraint and wisdom on both sides instead of revenge.
Another important figure for Shia Muslims in Iraq is politician Muqtada al-Sadr whose election list won the day in 2018. Al-Sadr defines himself as an Iranian nationalist, and while he is fiercely anti-USA, he has also publicly criticized Iran meddling in Iraqi affairs.
This deviation into Iraq and Lebanon led to two ideas.
Firstly, whatever Tehran's next steps, the authorities there must consider a situation where Iran is no longer the undisputed leader of the global Shia community.
And secondly that Iraq, through political chaos, power struggles and bloody clashes, is reestablishing itself as one of the pillars of the political and economic system of the Middle East. The faster that happens, the more important Baghdad will become for both USA and Iran.
The current confrontation is creating new tension in the entire region and beyond, while its axis, glowing core and principal battlefield will likely be Iraq.
That is why I borrowed my headline – in slightly adjusted form – from the young Iraqi woman known as Riverbend whose blog from 2003-2004 culminated in the book "Baghdad Burning". Borrowed in hopes that this time, the flames can be put out before the fire burns out of control.
Marin Mõttus has worked as a diplomat in Estonian embassies in Madrid and Tel Aviv and served as ambassador to Portugal and Turkey. From Ankara, Mõttus was accredited as ambassador to Iran, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.
Editor: Marcus Turovski