Labyrinthine Iranian Politics in Choice of Iraqi Leaders

Nibras Kazimi

Immediately following the announcement of Iraq’s pick for president and prime minister-designate, US senator Marco Rubio tweeted out that the new line-up, nominally arrived at through political consensus among the biggest winners of last May’s parliamentary elections, had been “personally brokered” by Iranian General Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force. The senator, an Iran hawk, may have seen intelligence suggesting such an intimate role played by the latter. However, the US administration, by way of secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his staff, has tried to put a positive spin on the outcome, suggesting that – given the alternatives – the choice of Barham Salih and Adel Abdul-Mahdi as president and prime minister-designate, respectively, was a net gain for America.

What is lacking in both views is the possibility that they misinterpret Soleimani’s play here. Managing Iraq through cutouts may never have been his intention. His game could be the bleeding out of Iraqi politics – which has often frustrated his designs on Baghdad – to the point where it collapses upon itself. Hence, the best outcome for him would be to do away with politics as it exists altogether, or at least to trivialize it. Given the levels of popular anger with the ruling class, Soleimani can arrive at that objective in a number of ways.

Iranian influence in Iraq is at its peak, while America’s is at its nadir. Iran can boast tens of thousands of Iraqi militiamen as its direct acolytes, and a coalition of some of the country’s top vote-getters as its unabashed allies. Meanwhile, the US has had to evacuate its consulate in Basra for fear of mortar barrages. Skeptics often decry the emphasis placed on Iran’s ability to maneuver in Iraq, and would justifiably point out that the Iranian consulate was vandalized and torched by protesters in Basra too. The difference is that had the Iranians wanted to defend their diplomatic property, they would have had the means to stop a mob of just approximately one thousand angry young men.

Nevertheless, Iran did not have to concede to an Iraqi president that it deemed uniquely close to US intelligence circles during his pre-2003 opposition days, or a prime minister who had been occasionally vetoed by Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei over the preceding 15 years whenever his named was floated for the top executive post. Many interpretations have been put forward by observers for that veto, the most convincing of which is that the Iranian leadership views Abdul-Mahdi as a fellow traveler with Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leaders of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, and one who shares their views.

Surely Iran, whether its influence was overstated or not, could still put the brakes on candidates it didn’t like. So, are we to believe that Iran’s reservations about this duo had magically dissipated? Even if Salih and Abdel-Mahdi had expressed all sorts of assurances and fealty to the Iranian leadership, it would still be a long shot to expect Tehran to forgo its objections. The Iranians would have also been mindful of the impression that that would leave – why would they want to give Pompeo the opportunity of spinning a win for America here, especially at this time of heightened tensions between America and Iran?

There are two major handicaps for the Salih/Abdul-Mahdi pairing that Soleimani may exploit to undermine Iraqi politics. Baghdad chose the Kurd it preferred rather than the one preferred by Kurds. Salih was competing against a candidate backed by Masoud Barzani, the former president of the Kurdish Regional Government. The latter is unpopular in non-Kurdish Iraq for many reasons, significant among them is his family’s historic drive for Kurdish secession. However, the Barzanis got the plurality of the Kurdish local vote held in September. Their tally exceeded that of their two major competitors combined.

Barzani was testing the political class in Baghdad to see if it really wanted to reconcile with him following the events of last year’s independence referendum that ended with Baghdad sending in tanks into Kirkuk and humiliating him. By rejecting his nominee, Baghdad failed the test as far as Barzani was concerned. Furthermore, Salih is politically weak within his own party, one that he left and decried over the last year, only having to return under its fold after failing at the ballot box and once the lure of the presidency was dangled before him. It was an embarrassing display of opportunism. In the next, inevitable flare-up between Baghdad and the Kurds, it is unlikely that Salih will be able to ameliorate his ethnic kin and deliver their approval, which was the whole point of setting aside the presidency for a Kurd.

Abdul-Mahdi on the other hand may prove to be a liability for the clerical institutions in Najaf, particularly that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Unnoticed in the month preceding the announcement of the prime minister-designate was a mysterious whisper campaign – unleashed on social media and through WhatsApp groups – that had it that Abdul-Mahdi was picked for the job by Muhammad Ridha, Sistani’s politically ambitious son. Soleimani seems intent on weakening Najaf’s ability to project political influence in Iraq and elsewhere; he and his bosses view Sistani as a rival and impediment. If Abdul-Mahdi is seen to fail, then popular opinion could be fanned to perceive that failure as Sistani’s too, further embittering the Iraqi populace on the idea of Najaf as an objective and ethical arbiter of politics.

That may be exactly where Soleimani wants matters to go, before delivering a coup de grace to the whole edifice of Iraqi politics that has governed the country since 2003, and that had left room for the Americans and other regional powers – other than Iran – to exercise a measure of influence.

Nibras Kazimi is the author of “Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.”