Iraq is expected to have a fully functioning government in less than a month now president Jalal Talabani has formally asked Nouri al-Maliki to form a new one. Parliament convened two weeks ago to reappoint Talabani as president after nearly nine months of political deadlock.
As part of the efforts to form a national unity government the position of parliament speaker went to Osama Nujayfi, the controversial ultra-nationalist who contested the elections as part of the Iraqyiah bloc of Ayad Allawi, the United States’ favourite. Allawi’s coalition won 91 seats – two more than Maliki’s bloc – in the March elections.
Irrespective of how the ministries are distributed it is now clear that Maliki and his State of Law coalition are the ultimate victors, having retained the premiership and preventing real power falling into the hands of rivals across the ethno-sectarian spectrum.
For the next four years it will, therefore, be Maliki who will be dictating Iraq’s domestic affairs – with or without the support of his so-called coalition partners. This becomes particularly significant for the US, which is expected to complete its troops withdrawal at the end of 2011 and is hoping it can work with Maliki to ensure that it leaves the country in a condition favourable to its long-term interests in the region.
On the minds of Washington’s policy- and decision-makers will be the extent to which Iran will have a stranglehold on the country once the US leaves. If Washington and its allies in the region truly want to manage Iranian influence when the withdrawal materialises then they need to start formulating policy around Maliki himself.
Of course, the winner of the elections is once again Iran, at least regionally.
It has won the eight month-long battle to swing the balance of power in Iraq in its favour: it is clear the Saudi-Arab world backed Allawi and his Iraqyiah bloc will not get the premiership, and is unlikely to get control of any meaningful national council that restrains the powers of the Iraqi premier.
Iran continues to successfully play its carefully planned, ruthless and strategic game in Iraq. It has audaciously sidelined historic ally the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which has just 17 seats to its name, and replaced it with unlikely bedfellow Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist bloc, the effective grassroots movement that won nearly 40 seats in the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr is currently in Qom, pursuing religious studies.
As an indication of the level of influence that Iran now has over the Sadrists, it was Tehran that directed Muqtada to back his arch-enemy Maliki in October, in effect ending Allawi’s hopes of becoming premier and preventing power returning to Iraq’s Sunni-Arab leadership. That has, since 2003, been Iran’s ultimate goal in Iraq, and it continues to succeed.
That may mean Maliki now owes Iran. Yet the fact is that the Iranians had no other choice: back Maliki or risk Iraqyiah taking office. In fact Sadrist and Iranian backing is more of a strategic catch for Maliki given that it was he who in 2008 deployed the Iraqi army to oust Sadrist militias from Basra, who has imprisoned hundreds of Sadrists and who broke from the Shia Iraqi National Alliance to contest the March elections independently, much to Iran’s dismay.
Sadrist militias and other splinter groups armed, forced underground as a result of the 2008 Basra operation and funded and trained by Iran, may still cause a headache for Maliki and challenge the security environment. However, this will not be tantamount to challenging the increasingly effective Iraqi security forces and indeed challenging Maliki himself, who holds effective control over them.
Beyond the security perspective, politically Iran has tapped into every other major grouping. The Kurds, for instance, also enjoy a historic relationship with Tehran. One on-the-ground source even spoke of Iraqyiah’s resistance to Talabani becoming president because “he is too close to Iran” (Tehran backed Talabani’s PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – during the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s).
Much to Iran’s advantage, both Talabani and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region and leader of PUK rival the Kurdistan Democratic Party, rejected US pleas to give Allawi the presidency. However, that had more to do with Barzani wanting to make sure Talabani stays in Baghdad, lest he should return to undermine his authority in any way.
Iran benefits from the fact that its enemies in Iraq, like Allawi’s Iraqyiah, are divided, and reluctant to forge any alliance with the major Shia blocs in case this upsets their sponsors in the Arab world. Senior figures within the movement were privately against an Allawi premiership, given that this would have denied them any entitlement to key posts.
However, though Iran may have that unparalleled web of influence in Iraq and though it may combine its vast economic and cultural interests in the country with its influence over the security and political environment, it cannot always be certain of determining Iraq’s domestic affairs. In the past it tried to torpedo the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that extended the US troop presence to the end of 2011, but Maliki successfully resisted this.
Maliki may also decide to extend the troop presence beyond this deadline, just to counterbalance Tehran’s influence. Politically independent and an effective and electorally legitimate leader unmatched by others in the current political arena, Maliki, based on his record as premier, could be Washington’s and the Arab world’s best hope of countering any rising Iranian influence in the country and indeed the region. They may not have any other choice.
Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East political and security risk analyst based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.