Is Iran Pulling the Strings in Iraq? Not Quite

  • Share
  • Read Later
From left: Reuters; Nabil al-Jurani / AP

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold up his photo, left; Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

The fact that Iran has blessed a second term of office for Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki — support that could help get him re-elected — is being treated in some corners as a grim and unexpected turn of events. No sooner had American combat troops departed, goes the story, than Iran moved into the vacuum to install its man in power, ordering the radical, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to throw his weight behind al-Maliki, whom al-Sadr detests. "May God get rid of America in Iraq so that its people's problems are solved," said Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, hosting al-Maliki on Monday. Cue the "Who lost Iraq?" chorus in Washington.

There is no question that the U.S. has struggled in vain to get its favorite, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, into power. That fits the pattern of democratic politics in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Washington's warnings against giving al-Sadr a significant stake in a new government appear likely to be ignored — although al-Maliki is expected to limit al-Sadr's supporters' access to the crucial security ministries, where the Sadrists' history of violence against Sunnis and U.S. forces would be cause for alarm. And just as with every elected Iraqi government since the fall of Saddam, a new al-Maliki administration would be closer to Iran than it is to Washington. Still, that outcome would be dictated by the established patterns of Iraqi democracy more than by external meddling.

The deal that would guarantee a second term for al-Maliki is not yet done. Al-Sadr is on board, possibly under Iranian prodding. More important, the radical cleric will have determined that as distasteful as he may find a second al-Maliki term, he'd prefer it to a government run by the U.S.-backed Allawi. Al-Maliki still needs the backing of the Kurdish bloc, although it too has indicated that despite its reservations, it prefers him to Allawi. Iran appears to be working to smooth al-Maliki's path, both among Shi'ite parties and perhaps in the region, interceding with Syria — which is backing Allawi — to accept another al-Maliki term. (Damascus fell out with al-Maliki last year after the Iraqi leader accused it of enabling the Sunni insurgency. Yes, despite the Iran-Syria regional alliance, they've been on opposite sides of the Iraqi deadlock — nothing in the Middle East is simple.)

Tehran may have greater influence than Washington does, but it is not able to script Baghdad's political process. Iran, after all, would have had the Shi'ite parties run as a single coalition, which would have finished way ahead of Allawi's. Nor is that influence anything new: Iran's key ally at the time, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as well as al-Maliki's Dawa Party, were included in the interim government assembled by the U.S. in 2003, and all three democratic elections have seen the Shi'ite Islamist parties emerge dominant. Even al-Sadr's kingmaker role is nothing new: al-Maliki became Prime Minister in May 2006 only with the backing of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc.

The reason the radical cleric has been so antagonistic to the incumbent is that al-Maliki unleashed his government's U.S.-backed security forces in March 2008 to take down al-Sadr's sectarian Mahdi Army. Curiously enough, the truce that ended that particular showdown was reportedly brokered by a senior commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The fact that Iraq's elected government has distanced itself from Washington's regional policy of confronting Iran and its allies is also nothing new. When al-Maliki visited Washington in the summer of 2006, U.S. legislators tried in vain to get him to condemn Lebanon's Iran-backed Shi'ite Hizballah militia, which was at the time engaged in a fierce fight with the Israeli military. Hizballah had long been an ally of al-Maliki's Dawa Party, and according to Britain's Guardian, Hizballah leaders helped broker agreement between al-Maliki and al-Sadr.

Although Allawi is appealing for U.S. and Arab support by denouncing Iranian "meddling," in reality both he and al-Maliki have spent considerable time canvassing support in neighboring capitals for their efforts to build a government. And it's not as if the U.S. hasn't been trying to get its own preferred option elected. No outside power is able to simply install a proxy in Baghdad; the only route to power is mustering the necessary parliamentary support. And while Allawi's bloc may have won two more seats than al-Maliki's, the incumbent has thus far proven more adept at building a coalition that is able to command a parliamentary majority.

The big losers, if al-Maliki is re-elected, will be the Sunnis, who ended their boycott of Iraqi elections to vote in droves for Allawi, only to see their man denied by the numbers. An al-Maliki re-election will confirm their sense of alienation from the Shi'ite-dominated order that has been in place since the U.S. deposed Saddam. And one consequence of that alienation is that many members of the "Sons of Iraq" — Sunni militias of former insurgents who helped the U.S. marginalize al-Qaeda in Iraq — are reportedly making their way back into the ranks of the insurgency. Ironically, it may be the ability of Sunnis to destabilize Iraq through insurgency rather than their parliamentary numbers that will eventually prompt al-Maliki to give the Sunnis a share of his new government. That's because with the U.S. required under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration to withdraw all its forces by the end of next year, the political focus of Iraq's next Prime Minister will be to maintain security and prevent an upsurge in sectarian violence.