Included in the recent Wikileaks release of thousands of United States diplomatic cables was one by the former American Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill. Hill’s report was entitled “Iran’s Efforts In Iraqi Electoral Politics,” and was dated November 13, 2009. In it, he claimed that Iran’s main concern at that time was ensuring continued Shiite rule in Iraq after the 2010 elections. They were especially concerned about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s nationalist tendencies, which would lesson sectarian politics and divide the Shiite vote. Hill’s memo pointed out the leading role that Iran plays within Iraq, but the events surrounding the recent vote there shows the limits of its influence as well.
In order to achieve its goals, Tehran was using its ties to Iraq’s political leaders and cash. Ambassador Hill wrote that Iran’s point man on Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force commander General Qassim Suleimani had relationships with Iraq’s Shiite, Kurdish, and even some Sunni parties. Individually, he had contacts with Prime Minister Maliki, President Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, former Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Reform List, and ex-speaker of parliament Iyad Samarraie of the Iraqi Accordance Front. Hill also claimed that Iran was providing $100-$200 million a year to its political allies. The Supreme Council and its militia the Badr Brigade seemed to be the largest recipient with $70 million annually. There were other reports that Moqtada al-Sadr’s party was getting $8 million per month to campaign in the 2010 election.
Iran undoubtedly played a leading role in Iraq’s recent elections, but they did not always get what they wanted. Before the balloting Tehran was able to get the Supreme Council, Sadrists, and other smaller Shiite parties to create the Iraqi National Alliance. At the same time, they did not convince Maliki to join as he went with his nationalist State of Law just as Iran had feared. With this split in the Shiite vote, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement was able to win the most seats. That helped convince Maliki to rejoin with his Shiite brethren in the new Iraqi National Coalition in May with a healthy nudge from Iran. However both Sadr and the Supreme Council objected to Maliki returning as premier, which made the new group a coalition in name only. The Supreme Council even nominated Vice President Mahdi in September as their candidate for prime minister. Then suddenly the Sadrists reversed course in October and backed Maliki. The general consensus was that this was done at the behest of Iran, and that they had ultimately come out victorious amongst the regional powers and the United States who were all attempting to influence the outcome of the 2010 elections. However, the fact that it took nearly seven months for Sadr to change his mind, points to internal factors within the Sadr Trend playing a large role, not just Iran’s influence. The Supreme Council still hasn’t come out in favor of Maliki even though it is the biggest recipient of Tehran’s largesse.
Conventional wisdom in the West is increasingly pointing to Iran as the biggest winner not only of the recent election, but post-war Iraq overall. As Ambassador Hill pointed out, Tehran is undoubtedly a major player in Iraqi politics. That being said, they do not give orders and the Iraqis comply. Iran’s main goal is being able to shape events in Iraq to their liking, not having direct control. Increasingly Iran is having problems at doing that as Iraqi nationalism has re-emerged and average citizens are becoming weary of their neighbor interfering in their affairs. That’s something that Ambassador Hill also mentioned in a later cable. The actions of the Iraqi parties point to the limits of Iran’s power. The Shiites did not unite before the vote, and it took them months to agree upon Maliki afterward, and some still refuse to do so. The Iraqi parties were caught up in their own power struggles and rivalries, and that ultimately played a larger role in their decisions than Iranian pressure.
Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08
Hanna, Michael Wahid, “Iran Has Less Power in Iraq Than We Think,” Atlantic, 10/14/10
Harari, Michal, “Status Update: Shi’a Militias in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/16/10
Hill, Christopher, “Iran/Iraq: The View From Najaf,” U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, 12/14/09
- “Iran’s Efforts In Iraqi Electoral Politics,” U.S. Embassy Baghdad, 11/13/09