[This is the English original of an article commissioned by BBC Persian ahead of the 30 April Iraqi elections. It was published by the BBC in Farsi]
For the first time since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, Iraq is holding a parliamentary election without any U.S. soldiers present in the country. This inevitably opens up for greater roles for regional powers like Turkey and Iran.
Historically, since 2003 the main role of Iran in Iraqi politics has been related to the electoral line-up of the Shiite Islamist parties, many of which it hosted during the Saddam Hussein era.
In 2005, this involved putting together a single, pan-Shiite coalition ticket that emerged as the biggest bloc in parliament (the United Iraq Alliance). Iran also played a certain role in deciding the premier candidate of the bloc (Nuri al-Maliki), although it was thought to have initially favoured Ibrahim al-Jaafari who eventually lost out especially because of Kurdish opposition.
Ahead of Iraq’s 2010 elections, this picture changed somewhat, not least because Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had decided to run separately from the other Shiites in the 2009 local elections with his State of Law coalition and was signaling a degree of independence from Iranian control. As a counter-measure, in May 2009, Iran sponsored negotiations between two of the main anti-Maliki Shiite Iraqi leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr and the cancer-struck and dying Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. With Ahmed Chalabi as intermediary, an agreement was reached in principle to recreate a major pan-Shiite alliance ahead of the elections (the Iraqi National Alliance). The goal was to get Maliki to join eventually, though there was also a clear desire to subjugate him following what was seen as a too overtly independent stance following the US troop “surge” in 2007-2008 and the subsequent local elections in 2009. However, Maliki strenuously rejected all schemes for grander alliances, leading to an electoral line-up consisting of two main Shiite alliances, with Iran backing that of Maliki’s competitors Sadr and Hakim, and their favoured PM candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari running on that list.
Whereas the situation of two competing Shiite lists was different from what Iran had been pushing for in 2010, Tehran was successful in using its allies in the Sadr-Hakim alliance to push the issue of de-Baathification – the cleansing of people with ties to the Saddam Hussein regime from Iraqi public life – to the forefront as an election issue. As the candidacies of several politicians with past connections to the Baath became a subject of debate during the final weeks before the election, Maliki ended up taking the hardline positions of his Shiite competitors, thereby alienating any Sunni support he had been able to tenuously build up during his years of relative independence from Iran. On election day, Maliki won fewer seats in parliament than he had envisaged and came only second in terms of the size of his parliamentary bloc – behind the Sunni-secularist ticket of Iraqiyya, which this time exhibited greater electoral coherence than the Shiites. This situation forced Maliki to drink from what he one year earlier had considered the poisoned chalice of a recreated sectarian Shiite alliance in order to keep the premiership. In August 2010, five months after the elections and with cabinet negotiations still ongoing, Iran basically ordered the Sadrists to accept Maliki as the premier candidate. In doing so, Tehran achieved the goal of a reconstituted, sectarian Shiite alliance in parliament (now called the National Alliance). This coalition was able to form a government with Kurdish support as well as with the more reluctant acquiescence of the Sunni-secular Iraqiyya who by now had been eclipsed by the Shiite post-election coalition building effort.
As Iraq goes to the polls again this year, there has for the first time not been any strong Iran push for a single Shiite coalition. Instead, there are at least three major Shiite lists – associated with Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrists respectively – as well as a sprinkling of smaller entities.
There could be many possible explanations for this fragmented situation, and for Iran’s apparent acquiescence in the face of it. On the one hand, ties between Maliki and Iran got closer during his second term, thanks not least to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 and the intensification of the Syrian crisis and its increasingly sectarian character during the course of 2012. Summer 2012 saw an attempt by Maliki’s primary Shiite adversaries to unseat him through a no confidence vote; those manouevres were ultimately thwarted by Iran who reportedly told the Sadrists to back off. Then, ahead of the 2013 local elections – and in an indication of Iran once more strengthening its influence – Maliki was for the first time joined in coalition by the Badr organization, formerly an Iranian-sponsored militia who had split from the Hakim faction. Also, in a testament to his losing interest in winning over Sunnis, Maliki participated in pan-Shiite alliances in several Shiite-minority provinces, including Diyala and Salahaddin.
At the same time, Iran must be acutely aware of the opposition to a third Maliki term in some key Shiite circles in Iraq. This includes not only the Hakim and Sadr camps, but also the conservative clergy in Najaf, with whom Iran has an uneasy relationship because of doctrinal issues including the wilayat al-faqih dispute.
Whereas it is being suggested that Muqtqda al-Sadr’s recent decision to step back from politics may be the result of instructions from Iran to offer better opportunities for Maliki, it seems likely that Iran is hedging its bets until after the elections. Some of the key players that run separately from Maliki also have solid ties to Iran, including not least Ahmed Chalabi who is this time a prominent candidate on the Hakim ticket, as well as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a past favourite PM candidate in Iranian eyes.
Beyond the intricacies of Shiite politics, special challenges for Iran in Iraq’s 2014 elections relate to the Kurdish political scene. Hitherto, Iran has above all relied on the PUK party of President Jalal Talabani, which has its voter base in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan that border directly upon Iran, for influence among Iraqi Kurds. But with Talabani incapacitated and in long-time hospital treatment in Germany, the PUK has lost considerable influence inside the Kurdish community, to the point where the biggest Kurdish party, KDP, for the first time has decided to ditch the process of a grand Kurdish alliance and instead run on its own in the elections. The KDP, in turn, is the number one Turkish client in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, meaning the new situation poses something of a threat to Iranian hegemony in grand regional terms. To Iran, the ascendant Gorran movement which has yet to align itself regionally may be of potential interest, at least as an Iraqi Kurdish counter-weight to the seemingly firm Turkish ties of the KDP.
Iran has always had problems gaining a foothold among Sunni and secular forces in Iraq. Previously, there were attempted contacts with the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq coalition, which participated in Shiite-led government at times when many Sunnis continued to boycott the entire post-2003 political process. This year, though, Tawafuq is not even running. Iran’s relations with existing Sunni-leaning lists are minimal. The list of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi is firmly in the Turkish camp whereas that of deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak is perhaps the most outspoken one in terms of its criticism of Iran. That leaves only Ayyad Allawi, whose party has historically been critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, though perhaps somewhat less vociferously than Mutlak and his allies. The government negotiations of 2010 actually saw unprecedented attempts by Allawi to reach out to Iran-friendly Shiite leaders critical of Maliki like Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, but it remains difficult to envisage Allawi’s electorate embracing any sort of close rapprochement with Iran.
It is noteworthy that this year, despite growing regional tension, Iran has refrained from pushing the de-Baathification issue to the forefront of Iraqi politics. It is possible that Iran understands that a complete alienation of Iraqi Sunnis may push them wholesale into the hands of Al-Qaeda-inspired hardliners in Syria such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the balance of power in Syria and the region alike. It is noteworthy that during the continuing crisis in the Anbar province of Iraq that borders on Syria, there has been a constant stream of local Sunni politicians who have announced their interest in cooperating with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad instead of becoming immersed in some medieval-inspired transnational statelet formation in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands. Whether Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran are able to use that potential in a positive way will only be known when the votes of the 30 April elections have been counted and the Iraqi cabinet formation negotiations begin.