Who Lost Iraq’s Election? Iran and America

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The only thing that’s clear from Iraq’s May 12 election is who the voters rejected: Iran and the U.S. These two outside powers have dominated their affairs since 2003, and this is the latest sign that a growing number of Iraqis are eager to reassert their identity and independence.

Otherwise, things remain complicated. The biggest number of parliamentary seats, 54, went to a coalition headed by the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A coalition of pro-Iranian Shiite parties finished second with 47. The bloc led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the U.S. favorite, followed closely with 42.

It takes 165 votes to form a governing majority in parliament, and with large numbers of smaller ethnic, sectarian and regional groupings in play, months of jockeying for position are virtually inevitable.

This is compounded by the dreadful 2010 court ruling which, as I explained on these pages before the election, mandates that first crack at forming a new government does not automatically go to the electoral victor but, assuming nobody has an outright majority, to whoever can assemble the biggest post-election bloc.

Thus all the election did was establish a framework for the real politics, which are going on right now in many a smoke-filled room. It will take months. There are two obvious potential outcomes with substantial regional and international consequences.

Many Americans will remember Sadr from the post-invasion occupation, when he commanded a militia that attacked U.S. troops and committed atrocities against the Sunni population. At that time, Sadr was primarily seen as the pro-Iranian, Shiite sectarian force in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, particularly in slum areas.

Over time, however, he has emerged as a type of politician Americans are now quite familiar with: mercurial, hyperbolic and idealistic, as well as protean and ever-changing. He has never reconciled with the U.S., but has had a bitter falling out with Iran.

He has successfully refashioned himself as a nationalist, with tremendous appeal in urban areas and, surprisingly, considerable support among Sunni Arabs. Even the three Iraqi communists who just got elected ran in his coalition.

He combines "Iraq first" rhetoric, which is simultaneously anti-American and anti-Iranian, with a fiery condemnation of existing politics and governance and demands for professionalism and technocrats in government, all the while lashing out at those he casts as political hacks or religious demagogues. This transformation has also allowed Sadr to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries.

It’s hard to get to 165 parliamentary votes without Sadr’s team. That probably means trouble for the U.S. presence in the country, but also potentially the emergence of an Iraqi government that is surprisingly independent of Tehran’s influence and open to reintegrating Iraq into the Arab world.

Of course, it’s also possible that if all of the pro-Iranian forces in parliament — including the Fatah Alliance representing the sectarian Shiite militias — along with parties loyal to Abadi and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as smaller groups such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan band together, an overtly pro-Tehran government could emerge. Iran’s plenipotentiary to its Arab clients, General Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has been reportedly barnstorming throughout Iraq to try to arrange precisely that.

Iran’s anxiety about the next Iraqi government is considerably intensified because of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and many clear-cut signs from Washington’s regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that Tehran will now face financial warfare and quite possibly a broader range of other pressures designed to cut its influence down to size.

Saudi Arabia has made considerable headway in recent years in weakening Iran’s grip on Iraq and re-establishing a Sunni and Gulf Arab political presence in the country. Riyadh would surely welcome a coalition led by or centered around Sadr and including Abadi’s bloc, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the secular National Alliance group headed by Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister.

There is no likelihood of an overtly anti-Iranian government in Baghdad. But there is a real possibility, and arguably even a likelihood, of a Sadr-led coalition that is non-Iranian in orientation. How stable that could be, and to what extent it could really contribute to the emergence of an increasingly independent Iraq not under the control of the U.S., Iran or the Arab countries, remains to be seen.

Ironically, whether the new government is basically pro-Iranian or not, almost all parties will eventually join it. Since 2005, no matter who ultimately formed a government, almost everyone eventually got on board. Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and it's hard to put your hand in the cookie jar if you’re standing outside the kitchen and sulking.

Sadr is best positioned to form the next government, but he can’t lead it directly because he did not sully himself with crude politicking and run for parliament himself. His high-minded rhetoric will make life difficult for anyone else who tries to live up to his lofty bombast.

Iran will do its best to block him and get its own clients back in power in Baghdad. But the election results have rendered that a long shot. No other country has accumulated as much influence in Iraq in recent years as Iran, so it’s well-positioned to play a long game. The converse is that no other country now has as much to lose in Iraq as Iran.

With Tehran bracing for serious financial and other blows from the U.S. and perhaps its allies, a significant loss of influence in Iraq would be a very bad precedent. The trajectory of Iraqi politics after the election will be an early and important indication of where Iran’s Middle Eastern regional clout may be headed.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.