After Election Troubles, Iran Embraces Damage Control in Iraq
The main pillars of Iran’s approach are preventing an armed conflict or widespread violence involving its allies in Iraq, maintaining cohesion among Shiite groups, and preventing the formation of a majority government or any restructuring of the Iraqi state.
On October 10, Iraq held one of the most controversial parliamentary elections since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. On the one hand, there were numerous allegations of electoral fraud during and after the elections, especially from the losing parties and political factions. More than two months on, the allegations are still being investigated by the Iraqi judiciary. On the other hand, a very low turnout in the election (about 41 percent) could be a sign that the majority of Iraqis are increasingly losing hope that a fundamental change can be achieved through the ballot box. This apparent public frustration results from a chaotic two-year period, marked by popular protests and unrest, state and non-state violence against civilians, fragile political alliances, and intensified foreign intervention. From this perspective, the mere low turnout in the elections, regardless of the results, should be seen as a warning sign about the future of stability in Iraq.
The election results, however, were no less important, as they indicated a significant change in the composition of the victorious camps. Here, the main losers are believed to be the Shiite factions close to Iran, which entered the election race under the umbrella of the Shiite Coordination Framework (SCF). Upon the announcement of the preliminary results, SCF-affiliated groups started to challenge the outcome, citing “electoral fraud” and calling for the election results to be annulled. Meanwhile, supporters of those groups took to the streets to protest the results. The protests soon turned violent, as the protesters clashed with Iraqi security forces in the capital Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the close connection between the majority of SCF groups and Iran convinced many observers to call the Islamic Republic “the biggest loser“ in the Iraqi elections, interpreting the latest developments as a potential blow to Tehran’s influence in the Arab country. That said, Iran’s approach toward the elections and their aftermath represented fundamental differences with its Iraqi allies. In fact, only one day after the elections and while the SCF factions had already started bringing under question the Iraqi government’s handling of the vote, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh congratulated the Iraqi “government, nation, and elected representatives of the Iraqi people” on successfully holding the elections. Also, on December 1, in what appeared to be Tehran’s attempt to distance itself from the post-electoral protests in Iraq, Khatibzadeh said all Tehran cares about is a “democratic and peaceful transfer of power” in Iraq, adding that Iran supports “legal processes” in the neighboring country. In the meantime, there have been numerous signs indicating that the Islamic Republic has been actually trying to calm down its Iraqi allies by sending high-ranking officials to Baghdad, including Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
These seeming contradictions between the shifting power equations in Iraq to the detriment of Iran-backed groups and Tehran’s cautious approach to post-election Iraq may spark questions about Iran’s actual calculations and its strategy with regard to the new situation. In fact, in the current circumstances, Tehran sees several delicate challenges that necessitate a very cautious strategy.
Muqtada al-Sadr: a Looming Menace
First of all, for Iran, who won the election is more a matter of concern than who lost it. Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric and politician whose bloc secured the biggest share of seats in the new parliament, was once considered Iran’s closest ally in Iraq. Over the past several years, however, he has gone so far in distancing himself from Iran and the Iran-backed Iraqi groups that he has effectively become one of the most severe challenges to Iran’s long-term interests in the country. Above all, Sadr has taken advantage of a wave of Iraqi nationalism and rising anti-Iranian sentiments in Iraq over the past two years by presenting himself as an independent and nationalist figure. In doing so, he has never shied away from publicly criticizing Iran-backed militias, as well the expanding Iran-U.S. competition on Iraqi soil.
Disagreements between Iran and Sadr appear to have intensified, especially since the assassination of former Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the United States in Iraq in January 2020. Since then, Sadr has been trying to assume the role of the pivot of Shiite politics in Iraq, which was long reserved for Soleimani—and the Islamic Republic more broadly. Soleimani’s successor, Qaani, however, lacks the charisma and consensus-building capabilities that his predecessor was known for. What made things even worse for Iranian leaders was the loss of one of their most loyal allies in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also assassinated alongside Soleimani. He had a crucial role in binding together a diverse set of militias constituting the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and guaranteeing their unconditional adherence to the Islamic Republic’s plans and interests. As such, it came as little surprise that his death gave rise to widening divisions among Shiite militias, including within the PMF. Those divisions played into Sadr’s hands, who maintained the ability to mobilize his supports for the elections while other Shiite factions were experiencing indecisiveness and political dysfunctionality.
In other words, the recent elections represented no substantial increase in Sadr’s numerical vote base. Instead, it was his strong mobilization capacity that brought him success. In fact, while the Sadr movement won the largest number of parliamentary seats, the Iran-backed Fatah alliance, itself part of the SCF, received more votes overall. If we consider the number of votes received by other SCF groups as well, the difference is even starker. That said, Iraqi Shiites’ traditionally high vote share seems to have been divided among different factions. Some observers believe that the SCF-affiliated groups’ lack of proper understanding of the new electoral law, adopted in late 2020, also contributed to their failure. Whatever the case, Tehran has already realized that it has no option but to accept Sadr’s victory as a fait accompli. However, he is by no means trusted or favored by his former Iranian friends.
The Islamic Republic’s uneasiness over Sadr’s victory derives primarily from two domestic and international concerns. At the domestic level, Sadr has frequently criticized the numerous Iran-backed armed groups, calling for their dissolution and integration into the official state structures. He also wants the PMF to be brought under full state control and kept away from politics. Indeed, tightening state control over the PMF is in contrast to Tehran’s interests, which wants the umbrella organization to be formally under state control (for the sake of its legitimacy) but to retain the autonomy it has had so far, which allows for Iran’s indirect influence in Iraq to remain intact. At the international level, Sadr’s apparent desire to establish a balance between Iran and its regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia, cannot be a promising sign for Tehran. At the same time, unlike most of the Iran-backed groups that call for reducing ties with the United States, Sadr seems to have a more pragmatic view: maintaining that relations with the United States are welcome as long as Washington respects Iraq’s sovereignty.
Iran’s Damage Control Strategy
Tehran’s growing mistrust toward Sadr aside, Iran does not want to see one single individual or faction—be it Sadr or anyone else—dominating Shiite politics in Iraq. Over the past nearly two decades, Iran has always seen political gaps between various Iraqi Shiites as a space for maneuvering and securing its interests, especially by playing the role of an honest broker or even coordinator among them. For this reason, although Iran has so far avoided openly taking sides in Iraq’s post-election strife between Sadr and the SCF, it does not want Sadr to succeed in his ambitions of forming a majority government. A majority government led by Sadr would mean that all Iran-backed groups would be pushed out of the government, which, in Iraqi politics, would be almost equal to being wiped off of the political map. Instead, Iran favors the SFC’s stance that a consensus government is the only viable solution, as has been the case since 2003.
When it comes to the structure of the Iraqi state, Tehran is also opposed to the potential abolition of the quota system, as demanded by a growing number of Iraqis over the past two years. The quota system or muhasasa was introduced following the fall of Saddam. According to this sectarian-based system, the prime ministership is reserved for the Shiites, while the parliament speaker comes from among the Sunnis, and the president is a Kurd. Needless to say, the removal of the current system would mean that at any time in the future, the Iraqi Shiites may lose their exclusive hold over the executive branch, which would negatively impact the influence of Iran’s allies in the country.
Mindful of these possible risks while having accepted that Sadr’s influence is an inevitable—albeit unfavorable—reality, Iran’s current strategy in Iraq is based on two main pillars: first, preventing the formation of a majority government, and second, preserving the unity of its allied Shiite groups while dissuading them from resorting to violence to advance their political agenda. With regard to the first issue, Tehran’s focus has been primarily on blocking any potential alignment between Sadr and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which would help the ambitious cleric sideline the SCF and get one step closer to forming a majority government. Therefore, just a few days after the elections, an IRGC commander was reportedly sent to Erbil to warn the Kurds against joining forces with Sadr.