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Iraqi Elections, Iranian Interests

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Tehran (REUTERS/Khamenei.ir).

A major event for Iran is barely a month away, though few in Washington seem to be paying attention.  On April 30, Iraq will hold national elections.  A lot is riding on these elections, including the future stability of Iraq.  And that is of no small concern to Tehran, which seems determined both to preserve (and expand) its influence in Iraq and to avoid another Sunni-Shi’a civil war in the region, especially one in Iraq because Iraq is so politically, economically and socially tied in to Iranian society.

Americans often either over-or understate Iran’s influence in Iraq.  Iran wields considerable influence in Iraq, unquestionably more than any other foreign country and far more than the United States.  It was Iran that ultimately engineered Nuri al-Maliki’s re-election as prime minister in 2010 by strong-arming the Sadrists to back him.  It was the Iranians who preserved his rule in 2012 by convincing Jalal Talabani to refuse demands to call for a vote of no-confidence—a vote that Maliki seemed likely to lose.  There are myriad other ways in which Iran wields influence and has demonstrated that sway in Iraq.

However, Iranian influence in Iraq is ultimately limited.  It cannot be said often enough that Maliki himself is NOT an Iranian puppet.  He dislikes and distrusts the Iranians, and sees himself as a nationalist who would like to free Iraq from Iran’s clutches.  The most important thing Nuri al-Maliki ever did as prime minister was to order (against American advice) Operation Charge of the Knights in the spring of 2008, by which American-backed Iraqi forces smashed Sadr’s Iranian-backed Jaysh al-Mahdi and drove it from Iraq.  At the time, it was a crippling blow to Iranian interests in Iraq. 

Nor do the Iranians seem particularly enamored of Maliki.  A senior Iraqi oppositionist told me that IRGC Qods Force Commander Qasim Sulaymani had told him that when Sulaymani was in Najaf earlier this year, Ayatollah Sistani asked him to ensure that Iraq gets a different prime minister, to which Sulaymani reportedly replied, “your words are my order.”  Indeed, a wide range of sources report that both in 2010 and in 2012, the Iranians looked hard for an alternative candidate to back instead of Maliki, but ultimately (and very reluctantly) felt they had to back him because they could not identify a viable alternative. 

So Iran wants to preserve its own influence, preserve Shi’a dominance of the country, avoid civil war and find an alternative to Maliki.  The problem is that Iraq’s elections could easily produce the opposite.

First, Maliki is likely to win a plurality of seats in the next parliament, and he might win a very big plurality.  Following the departure of the last U.S. troops in 2011, Maliki’s moves against various Sunni leaders have frightened an already wary Sunni Arab community.  In turn, they have, re-embraced various terrorist/insurgent groups such as al-Qa’ida (AQ), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the 1920 Revolution Brigade, Jaysh al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunnah, etc.  The terrorist attacks perpetrated by these groups have only inflamed Shi’a sentiment against the Sunnis, pushing the government to crack down harder on the Sunnis in a vicious cycle. 

Maliki has benefitted from this situation simply by being the incumbent and because his Shi’a rivals have allied themselves with the main Sunni political parties, who cannot denounce the violence for fear of alienating their constituency.  As a result, when the worst violence began in western Iraq in January and February, Maliki’s two main Shi’a rivals—ISCI and the Sadrists—shilly-shallied because of their alliance with the mainstream Sunni leaders.  This discredited both in the eyes of many Shi’a, who have been incensed by the Sunni terror attacks on their community and want “the government” to crack down as hard as possible.  Although Maliki has so far refrained from moving into Fallujah and Ramadi, he has nevertheless been the beneficiary of this Shi’a outrage because he at least talks tough about extirpating the Sunni terrorists. 

In addition, Muqtada al-Sadr’s bizarre and unexpected decision to disband his political party and withdraw from politics has further benefitted Maliki.  Many former Sadrists are expected to sign on to Maliki’s SoL coalition. 

As a result, Maliki’s SoL is likely to emerge as the single largest vote-getter in the election and could win anywhere from 60 to 110 seats.  It is still far too soon to make strong predictions, but the various factors noted above all suggest that Maliki will do quite well, and the possibility of his winning 100 or more seats is not at all far-fetched.  (It takes 167 seats to get a majority and form a government).

The most frequently discussed scenario in Baghdad is one in which Maliki secures 60-90 seats and then uses both that plurality and the powers of incumbency (his control over the judiciary, Iraqi election commission, the military, oil revenues, etc.) to prevent any other coalition from forming and naming a new government.  As he did in 2010, he would simply drag out the process of government formation until eventually all sides recognized that only he could be prime minister of Iraq.  During this time, he would continue to rule the country as caretaker prime minister.  As a result, most Iraqi political leaders expect government formation to last even longer than in 2010—with estimates of 18-24 months common. 

However, if Maliki is able to secure a commanding plurality (say 90 seats or more), it is also possible that government formation could happen much faster.  In these circumstances, it is likely that virtually all of Iraq’s political leaders would recognize that Maliki will inevitably remain prime minister, and therefore they would have enormous incentives to join his coalition quickly to secure key ministries before others do so.  Even the Kurds may conclude that they cannot prevent Maliki from remaining prime minister in these circumstances, and so instead would focus on what they could extract from him for their support.

Both of these scenarios could be problematic for Tehran, but the latter is potentially far more dangerous than the former.  In the first scenario, political paralysis would likely breed frustration on the part of a wide range of Iraqi actors, and those with guns will undoubtedly be tempted to use violence to energize and direct the political process.  It is a recipe for a slow, descent toward greater violence and if, in the end, Maliki were returned to power as prime minister, it would ultimately discredit the moderate Sunni political leaders who have been urging patience on their constituents in expectation that they can achieve Sunni aspirations peacefully and politically.  The silver lining for Tehran is that, in this scenario, Maliki would probably have to rely on Iranian help once again to help him put together a governing coalition.

In the second scenario, however, in which Maliki wins big, the Iranians could face two bigger concerns.  First, the government’s top officials might well see a big victory as a mandate to crush both the Sunni extremists/terrorists and their moderate political leaders, removing them as sources of violence and impediments to their political agenda.  That would doubtless discredit the moderate Sunni leadership and drive Iraq’s Sunni community into the arms of the extremists and terrorists, potentially pumping up the risks and accelerating the onset of a new civil war.  In addition, the government’s senior leadership might well see such a victory as liberating them from Iranian influence since they probably would not need Tehran’s support to put together a governing coalition.

As a final, disquieting thought for Tehran (and Washington), the greatest source of restraint in Iraq today is the election itself, with political figures on all sides arguing for caution before the vote in the expectation that a successful election will enable them to carry through their plans either without violence or with a popular mandate.  Once the election is over, it will no longer serve as a disincentive for greater violence or other extreme courses of action that could provoke violence.

Iraq is one of those places that contradicts the popular notion that Iranian and American interests constitute a zero-sum game.  There, what is bad for Iran is often just as bad for the United States—and what they want to see is often what we want to see as well.  Let’s hope that after the Iraqi elections, all sides can work to help force a new power-sharing arrangement and political compromise that is the only plausible way to avoid either a slow or rapid move to greater instability and violence in Iraq.