international analysis and commentary

Baghdad as Iran’s satrapy? The implications of the elections in Iraq

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Even before the announcement of the final tally of the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, three already established results pre-ordain the shape of Iraqi politics in the next phase: the block of the incumbent Prime Minister is slated to secure a parliamentary plurality, but not a majority; the Shia community will be represented by many rival blocks; and, to an alarmingly large extent, the battered Sunni community remains outside of the political process.

A positive reading of the elections could highlight the facts that they were conducted at all, with high voter participation, relatively little violence, and with generally limited challenges to their transparency and integrity. It would further note that the authoritarian bent of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki did not translate into excessive control over the electoral and political processes, and that the absence of Sunni participation may be more a reflection of rectifiable security conditions than of exclusion from national politics.

A less charitable reading would place these elections in the context of the continuing difficulties Iraq is experiencing as a unified state, and the possible restoration of autocracy of which there are many signs. In an Iraqi territory already fragmented into an autonomous Kurdish-majority North, a rebellious Sunni majority Center-West, and a more subdued Shia majority Center-South, the elections merely formalized the fragmentation. Maliki’s decision to treat the discontent in Sunni majority areas as acts of insurgency instigated by terrorists and Baathists ― leftovers of the deposed Saddam Hussein regime ― and thus apply repressive measures to crush it, may prove fatal to the precarious national unity. Sunni electoral abstention is indeed a strong vote of rejection of the Baghdad government.

Still, the most dramatic implication of the elections may be that the already influential Iranian role in Iraqi politics can be expected to become indispensable.

The survival of Maliki as the likely next prime minister is an important personal victory in the intra-Shia political struggle in Iraq. Maliki’s heavy-handed approach, both military and judicial, in targeting his Sunni rivals may have sealed the enmity towards him among Sunni Iraqis (about 20% of the total population); his autocratic and often unpredictable ruling style may have alienated the leadership of the Kurdish Iraqis (another 20% of the population). In fact, prior to the April elections, there was wide agreement that his statements and methods had created animosity in the ranks of Shia Iraqis, and had even earned him the rebuke of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the uncontested spiritual leader of the Shia faith in Iraq. Many, even within Maliki’s political camp, were weighing options for a replacement. Yet, as even the preliminary electoral results attest, Maliki was able to prevail. Patronage mechanisms and leadership momentum may be factors in his political survival. Differences in outlook between secular and religious orientations, between nationalists and Islamists, as well as deficits in organization and charisma, have stood in the way of the emergence of an alternative to Maliki, who thus wins his first place by default.

While the current Prime Minister will be tempted in the next stage to consolidate his grip through further authoritarian measures, in an effort to reduce if not eliminate challenges within his Shia constituency, his failure to secure a majority threshold in elections does reflect an inability to fully rally the Shia component to unity under his leadership. Having linked his leadership status to defeating his Sunni enemies in a battle that has proven difficult to sustain, Maliki is in dire need for additional tools to control his restive country. With Washington distancing itself from Maliki’s power maneuvers, and its putative reservations on his plans altogether, only Iran is in a position to provide such tangible support. The price for its support may however be the confirmation of Iraq as a satrapy of the Third Persian Empire.

Indeed, a long-term historical perspective has been noticeably present in the discourse of Islamic Republic luminaries in Tehran. While much of the historical focus and imagery in the past decades had been derived from the Islamic heritage, the rise of “Persian pride” can be noted ― with school curricula positing Persia as the originator of civilization, and bureaucrats patrolling international publications to insure the proper designation of the “Persian” Gulf as such ― expunging and condemning any reference to the competing designation of “Arabian”. On such historically-inspired basis, the United States is designated as the “Sixth Empire” in a count of pan-global dominions that extends through the aeons. It was thus of a peculiar significance that the military advisor to the Iranian Supreme Guide stated the claim that Iran’s borders now, and for the third time in history, practically extend to the Mediterranean– through Lebanon and Syria, with Iraq as a convenient platform to create a contiguous area. The previous instances were in the early and late antiquities, 5th century BC, and 7th century AD.

Poetics notwithstanding, Iran’s entanglement in the affairs of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has given it continuous access, both stealth and open, to Levantine shores, where the striking power of Hezbollah constitute advanced military positions in the service of Tehran’s interests. The official narrative is one of support to the camp of “resistance” against Zionist aggression and international hegemonic tendencies ― that is, the United States. The unofficial, albeit widely circulated narrative at the disposal of potentially understanding Western interlocutors, is that such Iranian extension is defensive and necessary against the threat of Sunni jihadism ― which constitutes a vital danger to both the West and Iran. This narrative evidently ignores or dismisses Tehran’s role in instigating and enabling Sunni jihadism, directly or through proxies ― despite a substantive track record recently further confirmed as a result of intra-Sunni jihadist feuds.

The serendipitous results of the US toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, were the immediate removal of a long-standing threat, and, with the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the enablement of the prospect of a new Iranian empire marching West.

Yet, the potential of Iraq sobering Iranian ambitions and rhetoric remains considerable. In this war-depleted country, with its majority Shia population Iranian influence may have been pervasive, but was not determinant. In fact, the emancipation of Shia Iraqis from the yoke of the Saddam regime created an immediate competition for spiritual supremacy between the Iranian city of Qom, and the traditional center of Shia learning in Najaf, Iraq. More pronounced is the rejection of most credible Iraqi clerics of the doctrine of the “rule of the jurisprudent”, which endows the Iranian Supreme Guide with sovereign rights over his adherents worldwide. While the Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon proclaims its submission to the will and diktat of the Iranian Supreme Guide, Iraqi Shia organizations and political parties have kept a safe distance from any such act of allegiance.

Politically, while Maliki may be surrounded by many advisors deeply supportive of strategic ties with Iran, he has sought over the past decade to find a regional or international counterweight to Tehran ― in Washington, Ankara and across the Gulf. The missteps and defects of his own government, as well as the constraints and considerations of his interlocutors have been obstacles to these efforts.

Ethnic, linguistic, political and even religious considerations stand in the way of Iran establishing firm control over Iraq. Yet, similarly to Maliki’s victory in the Iraqi elections, Iranian influence in Iraq may increase by default. In the state of Iraqi affairs emerging from the elections, both the continuing Sunni Iraqi drift away from Baghdad, and the increasing need of Maliki to control intra-Shia rivalries, will even further stand in the way of the pursuit of a counterweight to Tehran.

A lasting Baghdad satrapy, in an empire that extends to the Mediterranean, may be a figment of Tehran’s indulgence in historical metaphor. Yet, an enhanced role for Iran in Iraq in the short-to-medium term can be expected. Having practiced both excess and shortage in its Iraqi policy, only Washington is still in the position to prevent an Iranian entrenchment in Iraq. This can be accomplished through judicious pro-active steps gaining the confidence of the next Baghdad government in a long-term engagement, while nudging it away from its authoritarian trajectory.