Iraq And Lebanon Are Caught Between Iran And The U.S. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro asks Iraqi political analyst Hamzeh Hadad and Lebanese researcher Jimmy Matar about the U.S.-Iran escalation and other regional tensions in the Middle East.
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Iraq And Lebanon Are Caught Between Iran And The U.S.

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Iraq And Lebanon Are Caught Between Iran And The U.S.

Iraq And Lebanon Are Caught Between Iran And The U.S.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There is one thing that many living in the Middle East know all too well - when Iran and the United States tangle, it is often other countries that pay the price. Iraq and Lebanon in particular have been staging grounds for the region's proxy wars. Both are home to Iran-linked armed groups. This moment is no different, and we're going to check in now with two analysts. Hamzeh Hadad is an Iraqi political analyst, and he is in Baghdad.

Welcome to you, sir.

HAMZEH HADAD: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Jimmy Matar is a Lebanese researcher with the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies, and he is in Beirut.

Welcome to you.

JIMMY MATAR: Hey. Thank you for having me as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is to both of you. I spent a long time in the Middle East. And when the killing happened, I heard from so many of my friends in both countries - Lebanon and Iraq - just the absolute concern because when these tensions happen, it's not just a hypothetical thing - people lose their lives in these conflicts.

HADAD: Exactly. And I mean, for Iraqis, not only was the fear of, are more lives going to be lost because of this? There's also that fear of anger that our sovereignty was defied in the process. You know, it wasn't just any road. It was, you know, one of our most important roads to our most important airport.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah - that the U.S. military fired on Qassem Soleimani, killing him, you know, in a very prominent location in Iraq.

HADAD: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Jimmy?

MATAR: Yeah. I think we're just on the ripple effect, politically, with no fear of military escalation on the Lebanese side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamzeh, President Trump threatened sanctions on Iraq if U.S. troops are forced out. What is the reaction to that? - because obviously, there is a memory of U.N. sanctions in the '90s that had such a crippling effect. And the economic situation of Iraq after years of war, after the U.S. invasion, is not good.

HADAD: Definitely. I mean, the Iraqi people still see the effects of the sanctions to this day. It is something that is sensitive. And it's definitely not something I expect the president of one of their main allies to be threatening them with, and it's definitely not how you win the hearts and minds of Iraqis - if you're in a competition with the Iranians to win over Iraqis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what has been the reaction that you've heard to that?

HADAD: There's been, you know, ongoing protests from October talking about less involvement from foreign states such as Iran and America. So I think that just goes - continues with their demands. You know, we want less intervention from U.N. Sanctions is one of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jimmy, do you think the United States considered what the repercussions of their decision to kill Soleimani might mean for the region when they did it?

MATAR: I think that the U.S. saw an opportunity to assassinate a high-level target, and they took it from that perspective. The problem is they took it solely from their struggle with Iran, regardless of how it might affect, one, the people of Iraq on the first level and also how it would affect the protest movements in both Iraq and Lebanon as well 'cause Lebanon has the heavy Hezbollah presence. So even if they did get a gain, if you want, from their own perspective in the struggle with Iran in the region, they did do a lot of damage to the independent movements that are rising in these two countries.

HADAD: I definitely agree with Jimmy there, actually. Just to kind of add a point to Jimmy's is - you know, there's a lot of claims beforehand saying the protests in Iraq are being backed by the Americans, and such an action like taking out Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad gave more reason to have less tolerance to the protests. And we saw more of a violent reaction to them in cities like Basrah and Nasiriyah, when people wanted to continue the protest movement afterwards.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And finally, what are you both looking for to see how this will play out? What do you think is next?

MATAR: For us in Lebanon - and I'm not sure if also on a broader scale - the direct escalation between Iran and the U.S. is over. Long-term, it has been speculated that maybe Iran would resort to a proxy asymmetric kind of warfare against U.S. interests in the region, specifically in Iraq. I still do think that Lebanon, at least on a military proxy level, will stay on the side. I also would put it as a long shot that the U.S. would even escalate in terms of sanctions against a future government because that would not serve its interests either.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Hamzeh?

HADAD: I think it's to be seen - the developments after the death of Qassem Soleimani - considering just how hands-on of a leader he was in Iran. So his successor - how he's going to manage such a file is yet to be seen, especially in Iraq. We have a resigned prime minister, but he's still acting prime minister, and he doesn't seem to show any hints of leaving. If there's ever time for it to need strong leadership with a vision for this country, it is now, and it's currently not getting it from its prime minister or the political class altogether.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamzeh Hadad is an Iraqi political analyst in Baghdad. Thank you very much.

HADAD: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Jimmy Matar is a political researcher in Beirut. Thank you very much.

MATAR: Thank you. Thank you.

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