Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Iran remains a powerful force in Iraq’s new political scene

Despite the new government in Iraq - and America's renewed interest in the country - it is Iran that will remain a vital player in the country, writes Mohamad Bazzi
Former Iraqi prime minister - and now vice president - Nouri al-Maliki attends the parliament session in Baghdad on Monday (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, Pool)
Former Iraqi prime minister - and now vice president - Nouri al-Maliki attends the parliament session in Baghdad on Monday (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, Pool)

The new Iraqi prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, inherits a country practically in the midst of civil war. Mr Al Abadi, a Shiite Islamist, must convince Sunnis to abandon their revolt while also responding to the threat posed by ISIL extremists. To keep his government in power, he needs to assure Iraq’s Sunnis that he will be able to reverse the legacy of Nouri Al Maliki, his divisive predecessor.

Sunni political factions have several demands: amnesty for thousands of Sunnis jailed by Mr Al Maliki’s regime, greater power in the new government and a more significant role in the Iraqi security forces.

Already, Mr Al Abadi is being hampered by a new wave of sectarian bloodletting. On August 22, masked gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque in Diyala Province, killing dozens of worshippers. Sunni leaders blamed Shiite militias for the massacre and within hours withdrew from negotiations over the new government. Even if Mr Al Abadi is eventually able to meet all Sunni demands, he will face sectarian rifts beyond his control.

For now, Mr Al Abadi appears to enjoy broad support, but that is because many parties reached the point where they were willing to accept any Shiite candidate other than Mr Al Maliki as prime minister. As the jockeying over government ministries unfolded, Mr Al Abadi risked alienating some of these factions because he favoured his own Dawa Party and the larger State of Law Coalition during the distribution of cabinet posts.

In 2010, Mr Al Maliki secured a second term after Iran strong-armed two fellow Shiite leaders, the clerics Ammar Al Hakim and Muqtada Al Sadr, into supporting him. The two control 63 seats in the new parliament. To remain in power, Mr Al Abadi will also need to appease several other Shiite parties and militias largely beholden to Iran, including the League of the Righteous, a militia led by Qais Al Khazali.

Meanwhile, a leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, has emerged as a key player in the political process. Mr Al Sistani represents the dominant theological school in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which rejects the Iranian model of rule by clergy. The Najafi clerics believe their role is to be spiritual leaders and not to participate directly in politics. Since the US invasion of Iraq, Mr Al Sistani seized a more direct political role on several occasions, but has never stepped into the political arena as forcefully as he has since the fall of Mosul in early June. Mr Al Sistani issued a call to arms urging all able-bodied Iraqi men to join the security forces against ISIL, and he also played a leading role in persuading Iraq’s political elite to replace Mr Al Maliki as prime minister. Mr Al Sistani’s actions could shift the historic debate regarding the role of Shiite clerics.

Since 2003, Mr Al Sistani has competed with radical clerics for leadership over the Shiite community. This struggle reflects a parallel battle between Iranian and Iraqi clerics for dominance. The rise of ISIL threatens the interests of all Iraqi Shiite factions and the Iranian regime.

Iran is the regional player that has benefited most from America’s gamble in Iraq. The US ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shiite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history. As US troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over Iraq’s Shiite factions.

Tehran wants to ensure that Iraq never again poses an existential threat to Iranian interests, as Saddam did when he invaded Iran in 1980, instigating an eight-year war. Saddam was supported by most Arab states and Western powers. Iran will do whatever is necessary to keep a friendly, Shiite-led government in power in Baghdad.

Through a combination of funding, training for militias, and political support, Iran will continue to back all the major Shiite groups in Iraq. Mr Al Maliki did not start out as beholden to Iran, but as he struggled to remain in power, he became more dependent on Tehran. Mr Al Abadi needs to keep the support of various factions within the Dawa Party, and he needs the backing of other Shiite parties.

Even if Mr Al Abadi personally feels closer to the West, he needs Iranian support to keep his new government in power. Iran has many levers to maintain its influence over the political process in Iraq -- and it will not hesitate to use them.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday

Twitter: @BazziNYU

Updated: September 9, 2014 04:00 AM