Iraq’s Shi’a Leadership Crisis & the Iranian End Game

 

Iraq’s “Shi’a House” (Al-Bayt Al-Shi’i) is in a state of political turmoil. After enduring 1300 years of subjugation before their ascent to power in 2005, Iraq’s Shi’a are on the brink of losing their governing majority. In March’s parliamentary elections the Shi’a split their 60 percent voting majority between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) list and the “Islamists” Iraq National Alliance (INA), allowing Ayad Allawi’s “Iraqqiya’ slate of Sunni parties and secular Shi’a to score a narrow victory. Since the elections the Shi’a have compounded their leadership crisis by failing to convert the 159 seats its two factions won into a governing majority of the 325 seat parliament. The Iraq National Alliance’s refusal to form a majority bloc with State of Law unless al-Maliki resigns as Prime Minister has fractured the Shi’a governing coalition. With the specter of political stalemate looming over Baghdad discontent with al-Maliki’s government is growing. Mounting tension between Kurds and Arabs over the status of Kirkuk, June’s “Electricity Riots” and a spate of terrorist attacks by Salafists forces is destabilizing the country. Coming on the eve of America’s drawdown to 50,000 “support troops” in August the Iraqi government’s leadership crisis is creating a perilous situation on the ground. Against this backdrop Iran has dramatically stepped up its intervention in Iraq to fill the power vacuum it helped to create. Tehran is now transitioning to a post-U.S. occupation end game strategy—the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian proxy state.  

Since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iran’s strategy called for waging a proxy war using Shiite and Sunni military and political assets to prevent the consolidation of a hostile pro-American government in Baghdad. American troops in Iraq posed an existential threat to the survival of Iran’s clerical elite and its principal client state–Syria. In league with Damascus and working through various surrogate forces Iran sought to bleed U.S. armed forces on the battlefield; inflicting sustained casualties over time to frustrate America’s goal of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence on its border. But it was Abu Musab Zarqawi’s transformation of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. into a civil war against the Shi’a that ultimately lanced America’s Iraq project. With the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iran has all but won the proxy war. However, as the current political deadlock over forming a new government suggests, establishing a pro-Iranian proxy state in Iraq will be a difficult and complex enterprise.  

In June Tehran replaced its political point man Qod’s Force Commander Qassim Suleimani with the powerful Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and sacked Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in favor of former Qod’s Force foreign operations commander Hassan Danafor. Iran’s diplomatic offensive has three central goals in brokering a new Iraqi power sharing arrangement: First to prevent Ayad Allawi (Iraqiyya) and Nouri al-Maliki (SOL) from forming a new coalition government; second to reposition Shi’a political assets to control critical areas of Iraq’s new government and third to prevent the outbreak of a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war. The key to Iran’s short-term success is removing Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister and co-opting Ayad Allawi in a leadership role that minimizes his ability to threaten Iran’s strategic interests. For all these reasons Iran is leaning toward supporting a new coalition government between Iraqiyya and the INA led by its two main Islamists parties—Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi forces and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).  

With Iraq’s governing crisis entering its fifth month the emergence of an Allawi-Maliki governing coalition is increasingly unlikely but not impossible. While an Iraqiyya-SOL government would not be fatal to Iran’s design to become Iraq’s default power it would constitute a real setback. Allawi and Maliki would control parliament with a majority of 180 seats and have maximum political leverage to name the Prime Minister, President, Speaker of Parliament and heads of the powerful “sovereign ministries.” But talks between Allawi and al-Maliki have failed to make progress. Allawi insists that as the winner of the parliamentary elections Iraqiyya has the right to form the new government. Nouri al-Maliki has argued that Allawi cannot form a majority coalition  thus he should be allowed to form a new government  with the INA—a cynical argument given that the INA’s Moqtada al-Sada has adamantly refused to support him as Prime Minister. Moreover al-Maliki’s failed power play to steal the election has poisoned the well of reconciliation between Iraqiyya and the State of Law list.  Al-Maliki’s demand for an election recount to nullify Iraqiyya list candidates failed to change the election results. Similarly, his directive to Ahmed Chalabi’s Commission for Justice and Accountability to purge 500 Iraqiyya candidates under de-Baathification laws was overturned by Iraqi courts. Not only is al-Maliki looked upon with distain and suspicion by Allawi and his Sunni partners, he is equally despised by his Shi’a and Kurdish brethren.    

Since being named as a compromise Prime Minister to replace Ibrahim al-Jafarri in 2006 al Maliki has emerged as a self-serving strongman with an appetite for tyranny. His decision to take the Dawa Party out of the Shi’a governing alliance in the 2009 provincial elections and form the State of Law list created a major crack in the foundation of the Shi’a House. Determined to consolidate his own power, he sought to wrest control over Iraq’s military from Shi’a militias, opposed ISCI proposals to create a Shi’a autonomous region and opportunistically embraced secularism as the fount of Iraqi nationalism. At the insistence of the U.S. and to diminish his Shi’a rivals he directed a series of Iraqi army’s attacks against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and ISCI Badr militia in Basra and across southern Iraq. Resentful of Kurdish regional autonomy and consonant with his mission to preside over a ‘unitary Iraqi state” in 2008 al Maliki dispatched 3000 Iraqi soldiers to drive Kurdish pesh merga forces out of Mosul and the predominantly Kurdish border town of Khanaqin. As a result of the confrontations Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Massoud Barzanni and al-Maliki did not speak for over a year. It is al-Maliki’s selfish quest for power that could lead him to cut a deal that substantially diminishes both Shi’a and Iran’s influence. Therefore it is not surprising that Tehran is edging toward supporting an INA-Iraqiyya governing coalition.          

Iran’s opening to Iraqiyya began in April when Iraqiyya sent messages to Iran stating “Iraq’s territory will not be used by the Americans to attack Iran.” Iran then agreed to receive a delegation from Iraqiyya and in July the resurrected Moqtada al-Sadr convened a meeting with Ayad Allawi in Damascus hosted by Syrian President Assad. After the meeting al-Sadr said Iraqiyya was “ready to make concessions to put an end to Iraq’s political crisis. Given Iraqiyya’s strong election showing Iran and its INA supporters have conceded that attempting to cut Allawi and his Sunni list out of power could renew sectarian war. Iran’s problem is how to maneuver Allawi out of the Prime Minister’s post or to strip the premier’s portfolio of some of its powers.  

As Prime Minister Allawi would be Commander-in-Chief of Iraq’s armed forces and appoint the Minister of Interior and Defense which also control the intelligence services. It is the concentration of the coercive instruments of state power in the hands of Ayad Allawi that the Shi’a and Iran fear most. Since Allawi first formed the Iraqi National Accord in exile in 1990 he was the consensus choice of the CIA and Britain’s M-16 intelligence community to replace Saddam Hussien. An ex-Baathist officer with extensive ties to key military and intelligence figures Allawi argued that organizing a coup to topple Hussien would allow the Baathist bureaucracy to maintain control in Iraq and eliminate Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamists from seizing the portals of state power—which is precisely what happened. As Iraq’s interim government Prime Minister in 2004-05 Allawi maintained former Baathists military and intelligence officers in high level defense and security positions until he was swept out of office in Iraq’s 2005 elections. Allawi’s ability to unite the Sunni’s major political parties and former Baathists under Iraqiyya’s banner remains the source of his political power.  

What happens next in Iraq will likely be a replay of the four-month power struggle after the 2005 elections that culminated in Ibrahim Jaafari narrowly winning the Prime Minister’s post. However, sectarian bloodshed, Iraq’s faltering economy and charges that Jaafari was bent on consolidating Shi’a control at the expense of the Sunni and Kurds eventually created a political firestorm that made his selection as Prime Minister untenable. Today’s prolonged post-election power struggle, widespread dissatisfaction with Nouri al-Maliki’s government and his own dictatorial actions are fueling a similar consensus among the Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds that he step down as Prime Minister. Thus far Iran has been content to let the leadership crisis fester in the hope that an “Iraqi consensus” emerges to dump al-Maliki. An inter-Shi’a war to remove al-Maliki would further divide “The Shi’a House” and make it much more difficult to bring wavering members of the Dawa Party back into the Shi’a fold.  

While there are many contentious issues involving an alliance between the INA and Irraqiyya, Iran’s primary concern is who will control the military, internal security and intelligence forces. It’s worth noting that in 2005 the most pro-Iranian party–the Islam Supreme Council of Iraq– had the votes to place Abdel al Mahdi in the Prime Minister’s post. Instead they dumped Jafaari and agreed to seat al-Maliki to placate Moqtada al-Sadr and gain control of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence services. These “sovereign ministries” were critical to the Shi’a victory in the sectarian war with the Sunni and provided Iran with strategic depth inside Iraq’s military and security establishment.  

It remains to seen whether Iran can maneuver al-Maliki out of the Prime Minister’s post and strike a deal with Ayad Allawi that leaves Iraq’s armed forces, security and intelligence arms under Shi’a control. What is clear is that Iran’s ability to shape the outcome of the power struggle is substantial. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has greatly diminished Washington’s clout on the ground in Iraq as was evidenced by cool reception Vice-President Biden received in July from all the contending factions. Iran has also been helped by the Kurd’s decision at this juncture not to further complicate matters by using its 43 parliamentary seats to play kingmaker. The Kurds will present thier list of demands once a potential governing coalition emerges. That said, Iran has multiple players and options to orchestrate its post-U.S. occupation strategy.  

To be sure Iraq’s “Shi’a House” is not a monolithic group, nor do they march in lockstep with Iran. But Tehran’s supple strategy of providing aid and support to all the Shi’a factions without isolating or relying on any one faction gives Iran great flexibility on the ground. Iran was well served by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army directly confronting U.S. forces in Southern Iraq and providing the muscle for the Shi’a’s deadly sectarian battles with the Sunni. Despite their differences with Tehran, both Shi’a Prime Ministers—Jafaari and al-Maliki of the Dawa Party were also heavily dependent on Iranian largesse. And the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has been instrumental in extending Iran’s influence over Iraq’s clerical establishment and its pious Shi’a Muslim community. Qom slowly but surely seeks to displace Najaf as the global center of Shi’a scholarship and jurisprudence while containing Ayatollah Sistani’s political clout within Iraq. 

Finally, the $4 billion of trade that Tehran now conducts with Baghdad has added a new dimension to Iranian soft-power that will be critical to its long-term enterprise of establishing a proxy state in Iraq. Iraq will be the first real test case of Iran’s capacity to become a legitimate regional hegemon. Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Syria have largely hinged on providing financial aid, political support, weapons transfers and training of security and military personnel as part of building the anti-American rejectionists front. However, Iran’s capacity to become a serious regional power iwill ultimately turn on developing the requisite economic muscle to sustain its influence over time. Having emerged as an economic force in Baghdad capitalized by diverse hard and soft power assets, Iran appears ready to move from condominium with the United States over Iraq to consolidating Iraq as a strategic proxy state. Bridging the divide in Iraq’s “Shi’a House” and shaping the next governing coalition is the locus of Iran’s transition to its end game strategy.      

 

 

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