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Basra is being torched to save Iran from US sanctions

Iraqi's come together to protest calling for better public services in Basra, Iraq
Iraqi's come together to protest calling for better public services in Basra, Iraq

The rapidly accelerating developments and rising the public anger in Basra should not be analysed as separate from the ongoing deliberations to form the Iraqi government, with forecasts suggesting that those calling for ending the Iranian regime’s influence in Iraq will emerge victorious.

The ongoing crisis in the oil-rich city is also intertwined with the escalation of measures targeting the Iranian economy which many believe will face a lethal blow when the second package of US sanctions on Iran is implemented. This next tranche of sanctions means that the Iranian state’s sole economic artery, its oil exports, will be effectively severed by 5 November. An early indication of the magnitude of the effect this will have on the country’s economy can already be seen in Iran’s plummeting national currency.

It should be emphasised that the people of Basra have every reason to protest, having suffered a long series of horrendous crimes at their leaders’ hands, including systemic corruption, which left them with no   options but to take to the streets and demonstrate. There is a real danger, however, that the crisis in Iran could lead to exploitation of the situation in the neighbouring state, particularly in areas like Basra which are under de facto Iranian control, leading to an explosive crisis that could result in total collapse and possibly to large numbers of deaths.

When trying to determine the likely perpetrator of any crime, it’s best to identify who the main beneficiary would be. In Basra, all the fingers point to the Iranian regime, which first instigated unrest there by halting electricity supplies and aggravating existing water shortages.

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It’s difficult to believe, therefore, that the timing of the latest provocations and subsequent protests is coincidental, coming as they do just after the announcement of the formation of a new diverse Iraqi political bloc that threatens the Iranian regime’s current monopoly on the decision-making process in Iraq.

The plummeting rial also raises suspicion with many suggesting its rapid decline could be due to the Iranian Central Bank’s decision to extend restrictions on the spending of foreign exchange reserves. While this may be a contributing factor, it is far less significant than the threat posed to the regime by the Iraqi government’s decision to comply with the US sanctions, effectively shutting off the only remaining outlet that alleviates the impact of the sanctions.

Taking these factors into account along with Basra’s status as a hub of Shia militia activity sponsored by Tehran, it’s clear that any effort to free Iraq from the Iranian regime’s malign influence will be extremely challenging; the challenge will be greatest in Basra where very heavily armed militias, whose membership runs into the hundreds of thousands,  are ready to set the whole country alight in defence of the Iranian regime, both out of fanatical sectarian devotion and because their survival, as militias, hinges on that regime’s continued existence.

The regime in Tehran is desperate to mitigate the impact of the looming US sanctions. Frantic diplomatic efforts have failed to convince the European governments who opposed the sanctions, such as the UK, France and Germany, to continue dealing with Tehran, with these countries rushing to distance themselves after the sanctions began to threaten their own economies.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are also increasingly unwilling to expend much effort to deal with Iran’s political problems, being engaged in their own deadlocked negotiations and standoffs with Washington on many issues. Both superpowers could abandon their former support for Iran’s regime as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the US administration in order to reach a mutually satisfactory compromise.

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It’s not difficult, in these circumstances, to imagine that members of the various Iranian-backed militias in Iraq might infiltrate and intensify the protests in Basra for their masters in Tehran as a way to bring about a complete collapse in the province and to damage fuel exports from the oil-rich region.

Iran’s regime cannot withstand the crippling US sanctions, particularly whilst it’s still engaged in prohibitively expensive regional wars, without having its Iraqi channel where it’s been able to establish a strong presence and wield considerable influence. The formation of an anti-Iranian government in Iraq which could support the sanctions and implement its own would make this already problematic situation for Iran’s regime intolerable and accelerate its collapse.

For Iran’s regime, the multiple potential problems that could result from disrupting Iraqi oil exports are absolutely worth the risk since, in a period of grave existential danger to the regime’s future, such a move could force Washington to reconsider its decision to impose restrictions on Iran’s oil exports.

Given all these points, it’s very possible that the Iranian regime and its proxy militias in Iraq might deliberately instigate and exacerbate chaos and instability in an attempt to thwart Iraq’s efforts to form a government independent of Iranian influence.

The regime is aware that the world will face major challenges in compensating for the loss of Iranian oil supplies, currently standing at 2.3 billion barrels per day.

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The regime’s also well aware that any disruption to oil exports from Iraq will not only affect regional politics, but could potentially push the global economy towards a cataclysmic depression, opening the door to a very dangerous scenario in which oil prices could hit $150 per barrel due to the lack of sufficient supply to compensate for the loss of oil production from not one but two nations.

From Iran’s perspective, hampering Iraq’s oil exports could obstruct Washington’s push to reimpose restrictions on its own oil exports, with President Donald Trump already complaining about rising oil prices and pressuring producers to increase output.

Iran’s regime, which faces imminent suffocation through the upcoming re-imposition of US sanctions is well aware that Washington’s determination to halt all its oil exports will deprive it of its primary economic artery and will lead to upheaval at home which could result in the regime’s demise. It seems that the regime views exacerbating the peaceful protests in Basra as the only way to rescue itself from the abyss, no matter how this affects the Iraqi people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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