Thursday, June 7, 2012

Iran Tries To Mediate Iraq’s Political Crisis, But Can They Overcome The Deep Divisions In The Country?

As Iraq’s political crisis has dragged on, more and more countries have been dragged into the fray. One such nation is neighboring Iran, which has close ties to all of Iraq’s major parties. Tehran is currently worried that the opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are gaining more power, and creating more uncertainty in the country. As a result, Iran has been holding talks with Iraqi leaders both within and without the country. Iran would rather have a stable, sectarian government, led by Shiites than the current situation where the major lists are increasingly turning upon Maliki.

Iran has been trying to play the role of mediator in Iraq’s current dispute. Iranian officials have been travelling to Baghdad and Irbil, and hosting Iraqis in Iran. Iranian leaders have consulted with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki such as in January 2012 when he met with the speaker of Iran’s parliament Ali Larijani. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danafar has also talked with Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Movement (INM), President Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of the National Alliance (NA), and Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council, and NA member. In April, Maliki travelled to Iran, nominally to prepare for the 5 + 1 conference over Iran’s nuclear program that was to be held in Baghdad, but it was also to discuss with Iranian leaders, Shiite clerics, and Sadr the Iraqi political scene. While there, the premier had meetings with Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Iran’s Vice President Mohammed Reza Rahimi, President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranians were able to get Maliki and Sadr to sign a letter of understanding, but it didn’t last. As Sadr increased his rhetoric against Maliki, Iran upped the ante. Ayatollah Kadhem al-Hussein al-Haeri, the spiritual leader of the Sadr movement who is based in Iran, issued a fatwa forbidding his followers from voting for secular candidates with an explicit mention of Iraq. Sadr rejected that decree saying that Iraqi parties were a mix of secular and Islamist politicians, and accused Haeri of working for foreign powers. Iran then allegedly closed down Sadr’s offices in Tehran at the beginning of June, and requested that he come to Iran for talks. There were conflicting reports about what the outcome of that trip was. Members of the Sadr Trend stated that Iran wanted them to drop their push for a no confidence vote against Maliki, but that they would not budge. A member of State of Law then claimed that a deal had been worked out between the two, which was quickly denied by the Sadrists. Besides trying to squash the no confidence move against Maliki, Tehran has focused upon several other issues according to press reports. Those include trying to get the Kurdish Coalition and the prime minister to make concessions to each other, and convincing Maliki that he should follow through with more parts of the Irbil Agreement, which helped put together the current government in 2010. All along, Iran’s goal has been to return Iraq to the status quo. That means a government in Baghdad based upon sectarian quotas, where all the major lists had their share of top offices, while being led by Shiites. Surprisingly, this is the goal of the United States as well. The problem is that parties such as the National Movement, the Kurdish Coalition, and now the Sadrists believe that the premier is taking too much power for his own State of Law list, disrupting the delicate balance within the ruling coalition. With the American military now out of Iraq, Tehran does not want chaos on its doorstep, especially when it is facing the possible fall of its longtime ally in Syria. Iran has therefore been doubling down in recent weeks to get Iraq’s parties to come to some type of agreement so that they stop their constant bickering.

Many believe that Iran has attempted to dominate Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam and turn it into a puppet state. Serious analysis of Tehran’s strategy has shown it to be much more nuanced. Their main goal appears to be aimed at building up various forms of soft and hard levers within the country so that whenever a major issue arises, Iran will be able to influence events to their liking. That is exactly what they are trying to do now by having talks with all of Iraq’s factions. Their power will be severely tested in this situation, because many of these disputes date back decades, and are deeply personal. With U.S. troops out of Iraq, its politicians are also highly sensitive to claims that they are giving in to foreign influences, and want to assert their nationalist credentials. That’s why figures like Sadr who are deeply connected to Tehran are able to go against its will in his confrontation with Maliki. Despite Iran’s best efforts than, however the current crisis plays out it will ultimately be Iraqis who decide their fate.


Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi president rebuffs move to unseat premier,” Associated Press, 5/30/12

Ahmed, Hevidar, “Maliki Given Ultimatum at Leaders Meeting in Erbil,” Rudaw, 4/29/12

AIN, “Iran pressurizes to prevent withdrawing confidence from Maliki, says Naji,” 6/6/12
- “Kinani denies reaching agreement between Sadr Trend, SLC in Iran,” 6/6/12
- “Musawi: Sadr Trend, SLC about to reach agreement to settle crisis,” 6/6/12
- “SLC not part of political negotiations conducted in Iran, says Allaq,” 6/6/12

Alsabawi, Jasim, “Sadr Movement Claims No Ulterior Motive to Leader’s Erbil Visit,” Rudaw, 5/9/12

Al Estiqama, “Iran shut down Sadr’s office in Tehran because of its demand to withdraw confidence from the Maliki,” 6/1/12

Habib, Mustafa, “getting rid of nouri: PM’s critics consider options to remove ‘dictator,’” Niqash, 5/3/12

Hatem, Oudai, “Muqtada al-Sadr Ignores Fatwa Against Secularist Candidates,” Dar al-Hayat, 6/4/12

Najm, Hayder, “enemies in common: diplomacy from iran and west heals political rift in iraq,” Niqash, 2/15/12

Seibert, Thomas, “Erdogan’s bid to end Iraq power struggle,” The National, 1/11/12

Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 38,” 5/16/12

UPI, “Iran steps in to prop up to Iraq’s Maliki,” 6/5/12

Visser, Reidar, “Endgame for the Prime Minister?” Sada, 5/29/12


Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Interesting post, Joel.

Here's the question: to what extent are the statements of Sadr and some of the Sadrists (emphasis on 'some' there, since as we know there are other Sadrists who have gone on public record as opposing the no-confidence vote against Maliki: something that has been overlooked in media) against the premier just rhetorical posturing?

After all, in other cases we've seen how Sadrists have come out criticising the premier in word while actually backing him in practice: this was especially apparent in the immediate aftermath of the issuing of the arrest warrant against Tariq al-Hashemi.

Incidentally, I wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post around a fortnight ago on Iranian influence in Iraq. I would say that on reading your post here, I have altered my view somewhat and agree with your point that Iran's strategy in Iraq is more subtle than trying to turn it into a puppet state. This is not like the very late Western Roman Empire in which the magister militum would simply get depose the Emperor if he was seen to be exercising too much independence (e.g. Majorian).

Keep up the good work and thanks for posting!

Joel Wing said...

Good question Aymenn. The Sadrists have definitely been playing the fence when it comes to Maliki. They have stepped up their rhetorical attacks upon him, but at the same time have stood behind him in action, especially with its confrontation with Iraqiya.

My friend Kirk Sowell thinks that the arrest of the Election Commission head, changed Sadr's opinion, because if Maliki was going to try to fix the game, why play with him?

Even then the Sadr camp has been making contradictory statements. Sometimes they say they really want Maliki to go, other times they just say that their tactics are meant to get him to change.

At the same time, the drive can really go nowhere, because none of Maliki's opponents would agree upon a replacement. There's no way the Kurds or Iraqiya are going to agree to a Sadrist, too Islamist and close to Iran, and the Sadrists and Kurds are never going to agree upon Iraqiya coming back, because it's got too many people they think are Baathists.

In all likelihood, this crisis is going to drag out all the way to the next parliamentary vote in 2014.

Joel Wing said...

Aymenn forgot to mention Sadr has always wanted to be a national leader with the same standing as people like Maliki, etc. His recent moves has elevated him to that status as everyone is clambering for his support.