Al-Maliki no longer a dependable option for Iran

Al-Maliki no longer a dependable option for Iran

Al-Maliki no longer a dependable option for Iran
Barack Obama and Nuri Al-Maliki at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 12, 2011. (Reuters)
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Since Iraq’s elections in October 2021, the country has experienced a watershed moment, particularly regarding the political history of its Shiite population, with tensions mounting between the country’s two largest Shiite camps ever since.
The first of these camps is led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, a maverick cleric with an Islamist agenda and nationalist leanings, but who rejects the expansionist worldview of the Iranian regime’s Velayat-e Faqih doctrine. The second camp is led by the Coordination Framework, which includes Nuri Al-Maliki, the notoriously pro-Iran leader of the State of Law Coalition and Iraq’s former prime minister, whose political inclinations lean more toward globalism and favor the hard-line version of Shiite political Islam practiced and promoted by the Iranian regime.
These two camps are jockeying for the leadership of Iraq’s Shiites, with their campaign platforms pitting two extremely contradictory visions of the Iraqi state’s domestic politics, strategic decision-making and foreign relations against one another.
Al-Sadr is promoting a reformist policy package based on the creation of a “new Iraq” founded on the principles of an independent and sovereign state, rather than the country continuing, in his own words, to be an Iranian “satellite state.” This would begin with changing the current parliamentary system of government to a presidential one, allowing the formation of a national majority government.
He also wants to launch a campaign against corruption and corruptors, ban the possession of armaments outside state control, dissolve the armed militias plaguing Iraq, which operate outside state oversight, and completely restructure the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Units. Al-Sadr is also keen to establish neutral and balanced foreign relations. All these policies would pose a grave threat to the entire Iranian project in Iraq.
By contrast, Tehran’s man Al-Maliki is pursuing an overtly sectarian and exclusive agenda, employing exclusion even against his closest allies and Shiite coreligionists. The goal of Al-Maliki’s project is to maintain Iraq’s current status as a satellite state submissive to Iranian influence, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqis believe this to be the primary cause of the political gridlock afflicting the country.
Moreover, this anti-Iraq agenda has created an intra-Shiite schism, leading to plummeting popular support for Shiite rule. This pro-Iran agenda is also widely viewed as being responsible for Iraq’s current quagmire, which foreshadows potential intra-Shiite infighting that could have an impact on the present and future of Iranian clout in the beleaguered country, especially if angry protesters take to the streets to protest corruption and reject Mohammed Shia Al-Soudani, the nominated prime minister, who is close to Al-Maliki.
In response to these developments, Iran is exercising extreme caution for fear that things will spiral out of control, significantly increasing and very probably doubling the pace of its losses in Iraq. However, Iran watchers have dismissed the possibility of the current crisis in Iraq devolving into civil war or intra-Shiite infighting, arguing that the chances of such a precipitous decline are extremely remote for two main reasons.
Firstly, it would be difficult for Iran to authorize its aligned armed militias to engage in infighting with the Sadrist Movement. As a result, these pro-Iran factions will not fight Al-Sadr without first coordinating with Iran and obtaining its approval, which would, of course, be rejected by Tehran because it would contradict its interests in the neighboring country.
Iran also fears that the Raisi government’s adoption of a policy of diplomacy and dialogue with Arab and Gulf states will be put at risk if the Iraqi landscape descends into chaos and infighting. This Iranian policy aims to reduce regional tensions with Tehran, which the Iranian leadership hopes might undermine the Arab alliance with the West in imposing sanctions on it. Additionally, the calculations of the disputants take into account the gains they have made in recent years, which will lead them to think twice before starting any infighting that could destroy these gains.
Secondly, Iraqi political leaders are pursuing a policy of rational rhetoric and “calculated risks” with figures from all the political coalitions, including Al-Maliki, Hadi Al-Ameri, Qais Al-Khazali, Faleh Al-Fayyad, Ammar Al-Hakim, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Nechirvan Barzani and Barham Salih, proposing initiatives to calm tensions and prevent the volatile situation from spiraling out of control. Al-Sadr has also shown flexibility, ordering his supporters to leave the parliament building and camp outside it instead to spare the country the danger of the protest descending into infighting.
Meanwhile, some Iranian observers believe that the most likely scenario will see the Iraqi political factions agree on a new government approved by Al-Sadr, who exerts the greatest influence and wields the most power over the Shiite political equation in Iraq. They could also agree to dissolve parliament while retaining the government of Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi for an additional year, until early elections can be held to designate a new prime minister.
Non-Iranian observers, meanwhile, warn against holding any further elections in the immediate future. These analysts believe that such a vote would produce the same results and consequences as the previous one, especially given its exceptionally low voter turnout. This scenario would also provide an opportunity for the Coordination Framework to engage in election manipulation in order to gain leadership positions, which could further complicate an already complex crisis. That is unless Al-Sadr — through his calls to dissolve parliament — seeks to implement a scenario whereby Al-Kadhimi remains in office as prime minister until the constitution is amended and the entire political system changed.
To conclude, all the official and unofficial Iranian viewpoints show that Iran is now convinced that Al-Maliki’s leading of the Iraqi political landscape foreshadows the outbreak of extensive chaos and intra-Shiite infighting, which the leaders in Tehran deeply fear. Any such fighting has the potential to erode or even eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran also fears that any outbreak of infighting would reduce the chances of Shiites continuing to rule Iraq and increase the opportunities for Sunnis to rule the Shiite-majority nation once again. Iran also fears losing the sizable financial revenues it earns from Iraq by exporting its oil to the rest of the world, thereby circumventing US sanctions.

Some Iranian observers believe that the most likely scenario will see the Iraqi political factions agree on a new government approved by Al-Sadr.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

It is clear from all these points that maintaining control of Iraq is essential for Tehran to preserve its gains, implement the rest of its schemes and mitigate the impact of the sanctions imposed on it. As a result, for the time being at least, this means that it is politically expedient to appoint a prime minister who enjoys acceptance both at home and abroad — credentials that Al-Maliki sorely lacks. His policies during his two terms in office fueled widespread popular discontent over his sectarian practices, not only against Sunnis and Kurds, but also against Al-Sadr’s supporters, who are considered as his Shiite coreligionists. Accordingly, inviting him to head Iraq’s government and shape the Iraqi political landscape at present would jeopardize both Iran’s clout and the Shiites’ own future. In short, Al-Maliki is no longer a dependable option for Iran.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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