Tehran lost Iraqi elections: Don’t let it hijack the aftermath

Tehran lost Iraqi elections: Don’t let it hijack the aftermath

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr were crystal clear about what their faction’s electoral victory meant, as they elatedly surged through Baghdad’s Tahrir Square chanting: “Iran barra barra” (Iran get out). The surprising outcome of this election puts Al-Sadr in an extraordinarily powerful kingmaker position. If he plays his cards carefully, he could succeed in installing the inclusive technocrat-based governing system he has long advocated, while slamming the door on the ayatollahs of Tehran and their proxies.

On hearing the results, Iran’s Qassem Soleimani immediately flew to Baghdad for consultations. He will be furiously contacting various factions, making offers they can’t refuse. Soleimani wants to sabotage Al-Sadr’s efforts and concoct a Tehran-friendly coalition — exactly as happened with Iyad Allawi, who won the popular vote in 2010. Al-Sadr must move rapidly to outmaneuver Soleimani, possibly reaching a deal for Haider Abadi to remain as prime minister while Al-Sadr oversees government composition. 

Although Abadi’s vote share was disappointing, he and Al-Sadr are among the few Shiite politicians who enjoy widespread trust among Sunni communities. Abadi is widely perceived as the real architect of the fightback against Daesh, while waging a lonely (and not particularly successful) battle against corruption and sectarianism.

In the chaotic conditions following the demise of Daesh, the 2018 elections were a golden opportunity for Iranian paramilitary proxies in Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi to consolidate their influence. They failed. Iraqis were repelled by Al-Hashd’s message of “we deserve your vote.” They were likewise not fooled by sectarian militants like Hadi Al-Amiri and Qais Al-Khazali ripping off their paramilitary uniforms and making hollow statements about national unity. What Iraqis really wanted were effective leaders who prioritized measures to address the grinding poverty of everyday life. 

In their quest for electoral dominance, Al-Hashd embarked on a scorched-earth campaign across central Iraq. They prevented refugees from returning home, forced Sunnis into exile and used threats, coercion and extortion to gain votes. The fruits of demographic engineering are reflected in Al-Hashd winning second place in traditionally Sunni-majority provinces Diyala and Salahuddin, which bore the brunt of this paramilitary terrorism. Such outrageous election results must be investigated, particularly as Al-Hashd hope to consolidate local-level control in the upcoming provincial elections.

Despite its immense oil wealth and proud history, Iraq disintegrated in 2014 because of the corruption, sectarianism and Iranian interference under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, paving the way for Daesh’s victories. In these elections, Al-Maliki’s list was soundly defeated, partly thanks to Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani urging Iraqis not to elect the same old corrupt and failed faces.

Iraqis voted against the “Hezbollaization” of their society. If Al-Hashd is forced into opposition, then it will enjoy little political clout to resist pressure for demobilization and handing back areas under its control. Yet Iran’s allies are most dangerous when their backs are against the wall. They will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid such scenarios.

Iraq's kingmaker Al-Sadr can slam the door on the ayatollahs of Iran and their proxies.

Baria Alamuddin

Many of Tehran’s closest Iraqi allies emerged out of the militant fringes of Al-Sadr’s now-disbanded Mahdi Army. These militants unsurprisingly regard Al-Sadr’s anti-Iranian and anti-sectarian rhetoric as treasonous and, prior to the 2014 elections, there were multiple assassination attempts against Al-Sadr and his lieutenants. In response to Al-Sadr’s electoral alliance with Iraq’s Communist Party, a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared: “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq”  — an indicator that the knives may be out for sabotaging Al-Sadr’s victory.

American editorials are already recalling Al-Sadr’s bloody uprisings against US-led occupation after 2003. Although he has matured as a national figure, he will never cuddle up to the West like Abadi or Allawi. Yet he is probably Washington’s best chance for a bulwark against Iranian meddling. There is a need for active GCC and Western solidarity in ensuring that the likes of Abadi, Ammar Al-Hakim and indeed Al-Sadr himself are not seduced by Soleimani’s forked tongue. Iraq needs massive international assistance to get back on its feet. However, these powers must accept the fact that Al-Sadr is hostile to foreign meddling in Arab affairs — and this is not a bad thing.

These elections demonstrate why Iran and Israel’s attempts at regional dominance will ultimately fail: Tehran can kill and terrorize Iraqi citizens, mobilize paramilitary proxies, buy off politicians and swamp the airwaves with propaganda — but this ultimately serves as a reminder that Iran’s regime is a parasitic alien force seeking to dominate a land where it has no business being involved. In conflict-ravaged states across the region, Arab citizens will stand up in defiance of aggressive Iranian encroachment whenever the opportunity presents itself. Attempts by Tehran’s theocratic regime at hegemony will ultimately be consigned to the dustbin of history.

With many election centers recording a turnout of around 20 percent, these elections highlighted voter fatigue with their governing classes. Iraqis opined that, whoever they elected, politicians would simply pursue their own mercenary agendas. Yet voters warmed to Al-Sadr’s denunciation of this corrupt political system, where the administration is treated like a cake to be sliced up on a sectarian basis among victorious factions.

If nationalist Iraqi politicians seize the moment, these results represent an immense opportunity for a new, inclusive vision for Iraq. New ministers must prove they can deliver on promises for improving standards of living for all citizens. However, Al-Sadr and his allies must first thwart the hostile agendas seeking to abort such aspirations.

The coming months will reveal whether chants of “Iran barra barra” can be transformed into a governing vision which — for the first time — acts in the service of all Iraqis. We all have a stake in their success, because whether Iraq flourishes or disintegrates has immense consequences for the region and the wider world.

  •  Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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