Iraq and the Geopolitics of Protest


Thursday, November 14, 2019, 6:00pm to 8:00pm


CGIS South S020, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138


Event Recap

In his talk for the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University, Hassan Abbas discussed some of the major trends facing Iraqi society in light of the current wave of protests ongoing in the country. The recent protests in Iraq, as discussed by Abbas, are characterized by the dominance of creative expression, ranging from poetry to calligraphy which captures a wide reflection of Iraqi society and their demands for better governance. By observing street art and following social media feeds, Abbas discussed certain trends that illuminate the current political situation. One key message that stands out is the Iraqi people’s desire not to be a battleground between foreign powers whether it be the United States’, Turkey’s, Saudi Arabia’s, or Iran’s. At the same time, the Iraqi people are demanding from their own government greater accountability, transparency and constitutionalism.

In his discussion on the potential causes of the protests in Iraq, Dr. Abbas highlighted the importance of distinguishing the situation in Iraq from the broader Arab Spring. He explained that contrary to other cases in the Arab Spring, the protests in Iraq are non-sectarian. In fact, the Iraqi people have emphasized, “we are not Sunni, we are not Shi’i; we are all Iraqi.” In addition, the protests are primarily directed at foreign interference rather than a particular authoritarian dictatorship. Instead, Abbas proposed alternative theories surrounding the status quo. One such is the potential interference of Saudi Arabia following Iran’s strikes on the Kingdom’s oil refineries, or the interference of Israel as a continuation to its military operations in Iraq, which have included approximately 18 strikes on the country.

What will be the impact of the Iraqi protests on Iran’s influence in Iraq, and more broadly on the Iraqi state and its politics? Dr. Abbas recommends moving past a simplistic interpretation of Iran’s influence. While Iran will be challenged by the United States and Iraq, it is hard to ignore the deep familial, economic and political linkages that will continue to exist. Overall, Dr. Abbas suggests that the pressure exerted on the Iraqi government as a whole may serve as an avenue for future change and optimism, but only time will tell.

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Event Description

The recent mass protests in Iraq which have spread througouht the country since October have resulted in an apparent political deadlock between the country's main political factions and resulted in competing narratives over the nature and direction of the protest movement. However, the dynamics of Iraq's political structure are by no means insulated from the larger regional geopolitical environment especially given the heightened rivalry between the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors. Join us in this timely lecture by Hassan Abbas, Distinguished Professor of International Relations at National Defense University and senior advisor at the Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs.

Moderated by Dr. Payam Mohseni, Director of the Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs

Hassan Abbas is Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the Near East South Asia Strategic Studies Centre (NESA), National Defense University in Washington DC. He serves as a senior advisor at the Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Centre of Global Policy, a think tank focusing on the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and Muslim geopolitics. His current research work focuses on building narratives for countering political and religious extremism and law enforcement reforms in developing states. Earlier he served as professor and department chair at National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs (2011-2019) and as the Distinguished Quaid i Azam Professor at Columbia University (2009-2011).