Can Tehran’s proxies clinch electoral victories in Iraq and Lebanon?
Within a week of each other this May, two elections will have decisive consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East. In both the Iraqi and Lebanese elections, Iranian-backed coalitions are currently the largest and best-organized forces, with strong prospects for increasing their share of the vote and consolidating control over the apparatus of government.
In recent months, I asked numerous former diplomats to Baghdad whether they saw paramilitary leader Hadi Al-Amiri as a future prime minister. Several saw the question as ridiculous, recalling Al-Amiri as a grizzled and unpolished militia leader with too much blood on his hands to be taken seriously as a senior politician. However, experts may be forced to rethink as Al-Amiri steams towards the May 12 elections heading a list representing the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary forces.
Western leaders had staked their hopes on current Prime Minister Haider Abadi retaining his job. Abadi spent the past year promising all visitors that Al-Hashd militants would be forced to demobilize and stay out of politics. These promises have been broken. Instead, Al-Hashd’s Iranian patron Qassem Soleimani carefully cultivated Abadi. The two of them coordinated operations to push Kurdish forces out of central Iraq last October, and Al-Hashd forces duly occupied this vacuum. Abadi’s public statements became more supportive of Al-Hashd.
Immediately before the mid-January deadline for the registration of electoral coalitions, the shocking news emerged that — under Soleimani’s patronage — Abadi and Al-Hashd had agreed on a unified electoral list. Muqtada Al-Sadr (who had been widely predicted to join the prime minister in an anti-sectarian coalition) condemned Abadi’s union with Al-Hashd as “abhorrent.” For 24 hours, Abadi and Al-Hashd looked like a winning ticket as a stream of Shiite politicians rushed to sign up to this “Victory Coalition.” However, just hours after the registration deadline, Al-Hashd suddenly pulled the plug on Abadi.
Skeptical observers argued that Soleimani and Al-Hashd planned to abandon Abadi all along in order to sabotage his electoral prospects. If true, this strategy successfully discredited Abadi by treating the world to the unedifying spectacle of Iraq’s dovish prime minister grovelling for a deal with Iranian proxies, then being unceremoniously dumped after burning his boats with former allies.
Thus, the strongest and best-organized entity on the field is Al-Hashd’s Al-Fath coalition, which is expected to align with Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law list to dominate the Shiite vote. Al-Maliki and Soleimani have been discretely reaching out towards the two leading Kurdish parties and an alliance with either could almost guarantee Al-Hashd a working majority.
Instead of boycotting the polls, civil society groups and responsible politicians should mobilize, unite and bring people together from all communities in order to thwart the surge toward paramilitary dictatorship by a vanguard of Iran-backed sectarian extremists.
Fragmented and disorganized Sunni and Kurdish factions had staked their hopes on postponing the elections. Veteran Sunni politician Saleh Al-Mutlak predicted that holding elections in May would be “catastrophic,” with around three million Iraqis displaced by conflict. But Al-Mutlak also warned about Sunnis being seduced by calls for a boycott, which would allow sectarian forces to dominate the administration. Al-Hashd has a stake in keeping Sunni provinces in a state of turmoil through ongoing military operations to obstruct voting. In multiple provinces, Sunnis are prevented from returning home or have been terrorized back into exile. With even those Sunnis who are able to vote feeling disillusioned and marginalized by corrupt and dysfunctional Baghdad politics, large numbers look set to support a boycott, which would be disastrous for their interests.
Following Soleimani’s success in discrediting the prime minister, there is little to prevent Al-Amiri and Al-Hashd being the dominant force in May’s parliamentary and provincial elections. Why does this matter? Under Iran’s tutelage, Al-Hashd is consolidating its stranglehold over Iraq: It is omnipresent in the Shiite south and, through bouts of sectarian cleansing, has become a dominant force in Baghdad and central Iraq. Al-Hashd furthermore now controls Kirkuk, having beaten the Kurds all the way back to Irbil in the north. By surrendering the levers of government to Al-Hashd, there would be little to prevent it from accelerating its sectarianizing policies into Sunni areas, which are already highly alienated from Baghdad; perhaps triggering new bouts of conflict and driving Iraqis back into the arms of extremists.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah successfully backed a new elections law last year, breaking the deadlock and allowing the first parliamentary polls since 2009. The new proportional representation system is expected to favor Hezbollah on May 6; the question is whether Hezbollah succeeds in forming sufficiently broad tactical alliances to gain a majority and construct a government. Disputes between its allies, President Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement) and Nabih Berri (Amal), represented a setback, yet Hezbollah remains the best-organized force, with almost unlimited funds and a significant head-start in its campaigning.
Analyses of Hezbollah and Al-Hashd tend to focus on their military objectives, yet the long-term consequences of their political strategies may pose an infinitely greater threat. Military brute force is consistently deployed in the service of political agendas: Al-Hashd’s sectarian cleansing operations are centered on mixed provinces like Diyala, where demographic engineering has a meaningful electoral impact.
I have been unnerved by discussions with Western diplomats and policy experts, who appear relatively relaxed about paramilitary leaders like Al-Amiri acquiring leading roles. One official described Al-Amiri as “primarily an Iraqi nationalist” — despite him having lived much of his life in Iran (where his Iranian wife and family live); despite his well-documented complicity in sectarian cleansing; and despite his professed primary loyalty to Ali Khamenei. Officials complacently assured me that America would never allow paramilitary factions to seize control in Baghdad and Beirut, yet America and Europe have never appeared more disengaged than at this precarious moment, when the region’s future path will be defined.
Hezbollah and Al-Hashd exploit the democratic system but are wholly hostile to the values of democracy. We can be certain that, if they succeed, their first priority will be to manipulate the ground rules of the political system to perpetuate power in their hands. There would thus be little to prevent Tehran from converting Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into vassal states — creating a passageway through to the Mediterranean, the remaining Arab world, Israel, and even Europe.
With only three months to save Iraq and Lebanon from unchecked Iranian hegemony — and with the political forces that could stop them in chaotic disarray — why does it feel like the world isn’t paying attention?
The sectarianism, corruption and factionalism of Iraqi and Lebanese politics leave conscientious citizens unmotivated to campaign and vote; but this is precisely the intention of these same sectarian forces which subverted the democratic system in the first place. Instead of boycotting, civil society groups and responsible politicians should use the time available to mobilize, unite and bring people together from all communities in order to thwart the surge toward paramilitary dictatorship by a vanguard of Iran-backed sectarian extremists.
The world must also be unafraid to vigorously support the moderate and peace-loving aspirations of the majority against those who exploit the democratic system to stifle these nations’ democratic cultures.
• 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.