It’s no secret that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates loathe Iran. What’s far more surprising is that Iran seems to be wearing out its welcome even in the Arab countries with which it is most closely allied. That, at least, is the message of both a recent study of Syrian textbooks and a recent wave of violent protests in Iraq.
In Syria, Shiite Iran has been the mainstay of the Assad regime (which belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiism) ever since civil war erupted in 2011, pitting the regime against Sunni rebels. It has brought more than 80,000 troops to Syria to fight for the regime, mostly either from Shiite militias it already sponsored in Lebanon and Iraq or from new Shiite militias created especially for this purpose out of Afghan and Pakistani refugees in Iran. It has also given the Assad regime astronomical sums of money to keep it afloat.
Scholars estimate its combined military and economic aid to Syria over the course of the war at anywhere from $30 billion to $105 billion. Without this Iranian help, the regime likely wouldn’t have survived until Russia finally intervened in 2015, providing the crucial air power that enabled Assad to regain most of the territory he had lost.
Given all this, one would expect the regime to be grateful to its Iranian benefactors. Instead, as the textbook study shows, Assad is teaching Syrian schoolchildren a healthy dose of suspicion toward Iran.
The study, by researchers from the IMPACT-se research institute, examined official Syrian textbooks for first through twelfth graders used in areas controlled by Assad in 2017-18. Unsurprisingly, these books present Russia as a close ally. Students are even required to study the Russian language.
The portrayal of Iran, in contrast, is “lukewarm at best,” the report said. In part, this is because the “curriculum as a whole revolves around secular pan-Arabism” and Syria’s position as an integral part of the “Arab homeland,” to which non-Arab Iran emphatically doesn’t belong. And in part, it’s because Iran has historically been the Arab world’s rival. Even though the textbooks praise the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent antagonism to Israel and the West, which Syria shares, they have little good to say about the country formerly known as Persia in all the millennia until then.
For instance, the books say, the Arab world suffered “cultural domination” by the Persian Empire during the Abbasid caliphate, and at times, Arab lands were even under “Persian occupation.” Nor is this occupation a thing of the past: Even today, the books list Iran’s Khuzestan province as one of “the usurped areas of the Arab homeland.” In fact, it’s dubbed one of “the most important usurped regions.”
And what about Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia which played a key role in some of Assad’s most important victories, at the price of having over a third of its fighters killed or wounded? It doesn’t even merit a mention in the textbooks, the report said.
Now consider Shi’ite-majority Iraq, which also owes its very existence, in part, to Iranian support: After the Islamic State took over large swaths of the country a few years ago, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias proved crucial to regaining this territory. The air power provided by the U.S.-led coalition also obviously played a key role, but on the ground, the Iranian-backed militias were among Iraq’s most effective troops. And aside from this massive military aid, Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners and an important supplier of electricity.
Yet the protests that have recently swept southern Iraq—the country’s Shi’ite heartland—haven’t focused solely on the Iraqi government’s corruption and dysfunction; they have also repeatedly targeted Iranian-affiliated organizations. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that protesters torched a base belonging to the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. They also raided the Najaf airport, and “locals claimed they ransacked planes belonging to Iran.”
In addition, they targeted offices belonging to the Dawa party, the Badr party, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, “all of which are closely connected to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the report continued. “According to Iraq expert Haydar Al-Khoei, the protesters chanted ‘the Iranian Dawa party, the Safavids,’ a reference to the Persian Empire and an attempt to portray modern-day Iranian-backed parties in Iraq as a form of Iranian takeover of the country.”
Neither Syrian suspicion nor Iraqi hostility should actually be terribly surprising. Both countries understand that Iran didn’t provide such massive military aid out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, its goal is to turn both Syria and Iraq into Iranian satrapies, much as Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon already is. And neither Syrians nor Iraqis are enthusiastic over that prospect. (Russia obviously isn’t helping the Assad regime out of altruism either, but it seems to be seeking more limited quid pro quos, like oil concessions and naval bases, rather than total domination of the country.)
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean either Syria or Iraq will be showing Iran the door anytime soon; both are still too dependent on it. But it does mean Iran’s goal of Mideast domination may face more obstacles than were apparent a few years ago, making the goal of an Iranian rollback even more feasible.
Achieving rollback, however, will require continued efforts to make Iran’s military adventurism financially unsupportable. The Trump Administration’s planned new sanctions on Iran are an important step in the right direction. But the European Union is going in the opposite direction. It’s actually considering throwing Tehran a financial lifeline by letting Iran’s central bank open accounts with European central banks.
Washington must make it clear to Europe that any such effort will have severe ramifications for European access to America’s financial system. With Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians themselves now voicing growing discontent over Iran’s meddling in other countries, this is no time for the West to go wobbly.
Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2018