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Tehran’s new scheme in Iraq

In his visit to Moscow this week, Iraqi Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki peddled what he presented as his big idea: Inviting Russia to build “a significant presence” in Iraq to counterbalance that of the US.

Since Al-Maliki is reputed to be Tehran’s candidate as the next Iraqi prime minister, his “invitation” to Russia cannot be dismissed as a mere personal whim.

With Daesh driven out of Mosul and, hopefully, soon removed from other pockets of territory it still controls in Iraq, the decks are being cleared for the forthcoming general election that will decide the shape of the next government in Baghdad. Fancying itself as the “big winner” in Iraq, the Tehran leadership is working on a strategy to make that fancy a reality.

That strategy has three key elements.

The first is to create a new, supposedly “liberal” and “non-sectarian” Shiite coalition to dominate the next Parliament and, through that, the next government in Baghdad. That requires a reshuffling of political cards and the discarding of some old outfits.

In an editorial last Tuesday, Iran’s official news agency IRNA argued that “old formations” that had come into being during the struggle against Saddam Hussein and the subsequent post-liberation crisis were no longer capable of dealing with “new realities in Iraq.”

It was on the basis of that analysis that Ammar Al-Hakim, a leading politician-cum-cleric recently announced his separation from the Supreme Islamic Council, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Al-Hakim formed a new party named the “National Wisdom Movement.”

Al-Hakim, who hails from an old and respected dynasty of clerics originally from Shiraz, argues that the time has come to “break barriers of sects and ethnicities” in favor of the concept of “citizenship.” Thus he comes close to advocating the concept of “al-uruqah” (Iraqi-ness) that has long been a theme of such Iraqi Shiite politicians as Ayad Allawi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Tehran sources expect the “new model” to be adopted by other Shiite parties and groups. Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is reportedly studying the creation of a new “secular” formation away from his original political home in the Islamic Dawa Party, which has always been a clearly sectarian formation.

Talks are already underway for a merger of Al-Abadi’s support base with the Sadrist Movement led by Moqtada Al-Sadr, scion of another distinguished clerical dynasty originally from Mahallat, southwest of Tehran. According to unconfirmed reports, the new Abadi-Sadr coalition will be called “Freedom and Reconstruction,” a clearly non-sectarian identity.

Iranian leaders know that the majority of Iraqis resent the emergence of Iran as arbiter of their destiny. Russia, however, is seen as remote enough not to pose a direct threat to the internal balance of power.

Amir Taheri

Tehran’s hope is that Al-Maliki will transform his wing of the Dawa Party into yet another “non-sectarian” outfit to support his bid for premiership, presumably with support from Al-Hakim.

The apparent de-sectarianization of pro-Iran Shiite parties will make it difficult for Allawi and other genuinely non-sectarian Shiite politicians, who are hostile to Iranian influence in Baghdad, to appeal to the Shiite majority on the basis of citizenship and “al-uruqah.”

The new “de-sectarianization” gambit will also put pressure on Kurdish parties at a time some of them are campaigning for an “independence” referendum. It would be more difficult to sell the idea of an “independent” mini-state of Kurdistan to the international public opinion at a time that Iraq is seen to be moving toward a non-religious democratic and pluralist political system.

The gambit will also make it more difficult for Arab Sunni sectarians to garner support in the name of resisting a Shiite sectarian takeover of government in Baghdad. Salim Al-Juburi, a leading Arab Sunni politician and speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, is reportedly moving toward the creation of a non-sectarian party of his own.

The second element of the Iranian strategy is to almost oblige the clerical authority in Najaf (Marja’iyah) to endorse, even reluctantly, a Shiite political leadership clearly committed to Iran. Tehran knows that no government in Baghdad would have a chance of success without at least tacit blessing from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani has consistently refused to play the sectarian card and has advised politicians of all shades to think in terms of national rather than religious considerations. Thus, Tehran’s decision to “de-sectarianize” the Iraqi parties it supports will be a concession to Al-Sistani.

Tehran is offering yet another concession to Al-Sistani by abandoning its campaign to influence the Grand Ayatollah’s succession. The initial Iranian candidate for succession, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, a former senior official of the Islamic Republic, has been quietly cast aside and is reported to be in declining health.

Without formally saying so, Iran now admits that the issue of Al-Sistani’s succession must be sorted out by the “howzah” (seminary) in Najaf, possibly with some input from Qom and certainly not through diktat from Tehran.

The third element of the strategy is to draw Russia into Iraq as a facade for Iranian influence.

The leaders in Tehran know that the vast majority of Iraqis resent the emergence of Iran as arbiter of their destiny. Russia, however, is seen as remote enough not to pose a direct threat to the internal balance of power in Iraq. Yet, because Russia has no local support base in Iraq, it would have to rely on Iranian guidance and goodwill to play a leading role there.

A new Baghdad government composed of “non-sectarian” Shiite leaders promising a better deal for Arab Sunnis and Kurds, and backed by Russia, will be a better cover for the spread and consolidation of Iranian influence in Iraq.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Tehran’s new strategy will work. Many Iraqis, including some among those reputedly close to Iran, believe that Iraq itself can and must aspire after becoming a major player in the Middle East rather than playing Sancho Panza to the “Supreme Guide” in Tehran.

Iraqi leaders also see no logic in turning the US and Arab states into enemies just to suit Tehran’s doomed empire-building project, especially at a time that the Islamic Republic seems to be heading for the choppy waters of Ali Khamenei’s succession.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.

— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.