x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iran in silent fury over Iraq election result

US analysts welcome the results of Iraq's recent election while they wait for the outcome of horsetrading between the parties.

Iran has yet to respond officially to the surprisingly strong display of political muscle by a secular, nationalist coalition in neighbouring Iraq's general elections. Tehran's seemingly sullen silence reinforces the impression that it is fuming. Last Friday's poll results have been hailed by commentators in the United States and its allies in the Sunni Arab world as an unexpectedly welcome development that will curtail Iranian influence in Iraq.

Ayad Allawi campaigned for better ties with the Arab world, while keeping Iran at a distance. Most analysts say it is too early to say whether he will be able to form the next Iraqi government after his razor-thin victory at the March 7 polls. A protracted period of coalition building is now expected. Much of Mr Allawi's support came from Iraq's Sunni minority, but most of the parties he needs to back him now represent Iraq's Shiite majority, and they have close ties to Iran. "But we can say one thing with certainty: the election was a stunning defeat for Iran" which "spent millions trying to stop an Allawi victory", enthused David Ignatius of The Washington Post.

"If nothing else, that shows the resiliency of Iraqi nationalism, and anti-Iranian feeling, which the Shiite religious parties that have been governing Iraq these past five years failed to crush." Iran analysts are generally more restrained, but many agree the Iranian regime has suffered a setback. "Allawi is known to be pro-western and secular and we know Iran favoured his opponents," said a senior Iranian analyst in London, who declined to be named.

Hardline Iranian dailies such as Kayhan and Resalat had branded Mr Allawi, a former prime minister, a lackey of the British, Americans and Saudis. "Obviously, if he becomes prime minister, Iran's relations with Iraq will deteriorate," said an analyst in Tehran who also requested anonymity. "Allawi is very much inclined towards Arab states and his rise would mean a stronger position for the Sunni minority. Iraq is Iran's battlefield with Arab countries."

While previously highly critical of Tehran, Mr Allawi was careful during the election campaign not to take a hostile stance, calling for good relations with all of Iraq's neighbours, including Iran. But he lashed out at Iran on Tuesday, accusing the Islamic republic of trying to prevent him from becoming prime minister. He told the BBC that Iran had interfered by inviting all the major Iraqi parties to Tehran for talks, except his Iraqiyya bloc.

Mr Allawi also alleged that Tehran was influencing a commission that has been vetting candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party, which could disqualify more of his supporters. Iran denies any such interference. "Allawi's comments tell me that in Iraq, anti-Iranian sentiment is growing and he's using that for leverage," the analyst in London said. Other Iran experts, however, are far from certain that Tehran views the election outcome next door as a setback ? at least not yet.

Iran, they argue, may well prefer to see the current coalition of Islamist parties and Kurds remain in power, with or without the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who is friendly with Tehran, at the helm. But, they argue, Iran has deep connections to a wide variety of groups and forces in Iraq at the federal and provincial levels that give Tehran the ability to adjust to any shifting balance of power.

The US may have 96,000 troops in Iraq, but its influence is trumped by Iran's "soft power", they say. Iran and Iraq are bound by strong geographic, historic and particularly religious ties, as both have majority Shiite populations. Many of Iraq's Shiite political elite lived in exile in Iran for decades during Saddam's rule, while Mr Allawi spent most of his years in exile in Britain. At the same time, influential Iraqi Shiite politicians who spent years in Iran have no desire to see Iraq become an Islamic republic. They witnessed firsthand the Iranian experiment, where a supreme leader wields more power than elected institutions, and were unimpressed.

Iran is confident, nevertheless, that any new coalition in Iraq will include sympathetic Shiite Islamist forces, even it is headed by Mr Allawi, experts say. "Tehran can live with almost any outcome in Iraq so long as the results do not bring about instability and as such turn into an obstacle for America's scheduled troop withdrawal [due to begin later this year]," Farideh Farhi, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, said in an interview.

Ms Farhi argued it was misguided to suggest Iran's interests in Iraq were inherently at odds with those of the US and its Arab allies. All parties, she argued, want a stable Iraq. "The argument for an Iranian setback at this point only makes sense if one perceives the American and Iranian stakes in Iraq as only in conflict - which is not necessarily the case," she said. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

msinaiee@thenational.ae Michael Theodolou reported from Nicosia, Cyprus and Maryam Sinaiee reported from Tehran