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The Results of the Iraqi Elections? A Slap in the Face to Iran

Filed under: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

The Results of the Iraqi Elections? A Slap in the Face to Iran
Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag outside a polling station in Najaf on May 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Haidar Hamdani)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 13

  • Surprising results have been seen in Iraqi legislative elections as Muqtada al-Sadr’s party wins the most votes.
  • Will Iran prevent al-Sadr from forming a governing coalition, as he is known for his anti-Iranian stance?
  • Does the election result indicate that Iran’s influence over Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries is starting to wane?
Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag outside a polling station in Najaf on May 12, 2018.
Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag outside a polling station in Najaf on May 12, 2018.
(AFP Photo/Haidar Hamdani)

The results of the Iraqi legislative elections have taken both Iran and the United States by surprise. The party of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American and anti-Iranian Shiite cleric, succeeded in winning 54 out of the 329 seats in the newly-elected Iraqi parliament. By doing so, his Sairoun party list (Arabic for “going forward”) became the biggest parliamentary faction. Al-Sadr’s Sairoun beat the favorite pro-Iranian parties headed by Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the pro-Iranian Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Arabic for “popular mobilization units”) militia, which took part in crushing ISIS and presented itself under the name Al-Fath (Arabic for “conquest”), which lost by seven seats (47). Another party led by a pro-Iran candidate, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, won 26 seats.

The final results were published on May 19, 2018, seven days after the election day, due to allegations of massive fraud within the Kurdish-populated provinces of Kirkuk and Dahuk. The tabulations confirmed the partial results, which were published immediately after the elections, and the projection that Muqtada al-Sadr’s faction was the biggest parliamentary group. Although al-Sadr will not become prime minister since his name was not included in the list, he will likely play the role of the “kingmaker” behind the scenes and form the next Iraqi government – if Iran does not succeed in blocking him. In 2010, that is precisely what Iran did after Ayad Allawi won the most seats but could not form a government. Instead, Iran intervened and presented another pro-Iranian alternative. Indeed, despite the fact that al-Sadr’s faction is the biggest in the coming parliament, under the Iraqi constitution a larger coalition of factions is tasked with forming a new government.

Who Is al-Sadr?

Muqtada al-Sadr (born 1973) became famous in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the leader of a militia who led two armed uprisings against the U.S. forces. He also incited sectarian violence but rebranded himself as a champion of the poor, promoter of social protests, and corruption fighter. Al-Sadr was also vehemently anti-Iranian and criticized Iraqi politicians who became vassals of the Ayatollahs in Iran.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s success stems primarily from the fact that the 44.25 percent election turnout was the lowest since 2003 and a drop from 62 percent in 2014, which played in al-Sadr’s favor since his followers voted en masse while others either abstained or showed a lack of interest.

Since the elections, al-Sadr has embarked on recruiting the support of other parliamentary factions. He seems to have struck a deal with:

  • acting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s list, “Coalition of Victory” (I’tilaf el Nasr with 42 seats), with whom he met immediately after the announcement of the final results;
  • former vice-president and former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi’s “National State” list (Al-Dawla Al-Wataniya with 21 seats);
  • Masoud Barzani, leader of the “Kurdish Democratic Party” (25 seats, one of the two biggest and rival Kurdish factions).

Moreover, Muqtada al-Sadr called on all “patriotic” factions, while emphasizing his rejection of the two main pro-Iranian blocs – Hadi al-Amiri’s Al-Fath list and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “State of Law Coalition” to join his coalition in order to restore to Iraq its dignity, independence, and freedom of choice.

By the end of the week (May 18, 2018), al-Sadr scored yet another victory by rallying Ammar al-Hakim, a cleric and politician, former leader of the Islamic Council of Iraq (2004-2017), and head of the “National Wisdom Movement” (Al Hikma), who won 19 seats in the elections and agreed to explore establishing a united faction. Ammar al-Hakim was part of Haider al-Abadi’s coalition in 2014, but he decided to split away before the 2018 elections.

Muqtada al-Sadr, whose list included Communists and liberal factions, has called to form a technocratic government to fight party corruption. He emphasized in his Tweets after the elections the need to restore the independent identity of Iraq, “making Baghdad the capital of our identity” and pointing very clearly at the need to depart from Iranian tutelage.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s goal is to reach a coalition of 165 seats (which represent a majority of one seat in the 329-seat Parliament) to assure his government a majority and to block any attempts from pro-Iranian factions to form an alternative pro-Iranian government. To do so, he still needs to rally a plethora of petty political factions, such as Osama al-Nujaifi’s al-Qarar al-Iraqi alliance (14 seats ), Hanan al-Fatlawi’s Eradaa bloc (two seats), former Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi’s list (two seats), and the Kurdish Shasour Abd el-Wahed’s faction (one seat). There is no doubt that negotiations between the parties will last a long time. However, the chances are that those petty lists will agree to join the coalition in the “biggest bang” of politics in Iraq since the American invasion of 2003.

Iran’s Response to the Election Result

Al-Sadr’s victory came as a shock to Iran, which had expressed its opposition to him before the elections. The elections in Iraq were so important to the Iranians that they dispatched General Qasem Soleimani, the notorious commander of the Quds Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a few days before election day to coordinate the pro-Iranian factions running for parliament. In the aftermath of the elections, Soleimani has been busy in Iraq devising ways to counter al-Sadr’s success. Soleimani’s tactic was to build a pro-Iranian bloc by trying to forge a merger between the two main political factions – Amiri’s and Maliki’s, thus presenting a bigger parliamentary coalition qualified to form the next Iraqi government. However, it seems that Soleimani failed in his mission, since he left Iraq after meeting with the two leaders without achieving any concrete results. Soleimani, who was also trying to lure Haider al-Abadi into his coalition together with the anti-Barzani Kurdish group led by its arch-rivals, the Talabanis from Sulaymaniyah (the National Kurdish Union), failed to meet Haider al-Abadi. Al-Sadr responded to Soleimani’s attempted coalition building by giving the Iranian emissary 48 hours to get out of Iraq.

Iranian al-Quds commander Suleimani stirs the pot.
Iranian al-Quds commander Suleimani stirs the pot. The cartoon title is “The meal.”
The inscription on the pot is “the prime ministership.” (Iraqi news service, AlIraqnet)

Illustrative of the state of hostility and lack of communications existing between al-Sadr and Iran is the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr met on Friday, May 18, 2018, with the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria in his residence in Najaf and briefed them about his plans after the elections. The Iranian ambassador’s absence at al-Sadr’s briefing was noted by all present diplomats and the Iraqi media, which covered the event.

Al-Sadr’s victory also took the United States by surprise. The U.S. administration dispatched Brett McGurk, the White House delegate in the war against ISIS, to Baghdad, where he immediately began consultations with several political leaders, with the exception of al-Sadr himself. Fifteen years after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought American and Iraqi troops, the United States seems disposed to assume a realpolitik attitude, setting aside the past and cooperating with the charismatic leader in the hope of finding common ground in eradicating Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics. In parallel, Muqtada al-Sadr distanced himself over the years from his anti-American policy, got closer to Saudi Arabia, which he visited in 2017, and showed his readiness to cooperate with the United States and tolerate its continued military presence in Iraq.

Al-Sadr meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, July 30, 2017
Al-Sadr meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, July 30, 2017 (Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency)

This is not the case with Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory and eventual government, headed by his coalition, (assuming he succeeds in forming the next government) would represent a harsh and burning defeat for Tehran. Iran’s nose would have been rubbed in the dirt. Based on his latest policy declarations, one can assess that Iraq under al-Sadr will seek to recover its Arab identity and depart from the Ayatollahs’ choke hold. Iranian hegemony would be challenged, and a return to cold and hostile relations could be envisaged. Accordingly, it seems likely that Iran would probably use its proxies in Iraq to undermine the regime, which in turn could be the cause of further enmity between the two governments.

Is Iran’s Influence over Other Middle Eastern Countries Starting to Wane?

In fact, the Iraqi election result has occurred in a difficult context for Iran. These elections are but another hurdle facing Iran in its effort to expand its influence in Arab lands. Iran is challenged by the Trump Administration, Israel, Egypt, the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar), Saudi Arabia, and lately by Vladimir Putin, who stated at the end of his meeting with Bashar Assad in Sochi (in mid-May) the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria (which in other terms mean also Iranian and proxy forces). Iran finds itself on the defensive, under fire and needing to re-organize. What seemed to be easy prey just weeks ago has transformed into a major crisis. Even the results of the elections in Lebanon and the victory of the Hizbullah coalition do not presage a greater grip on elusive Lebanon, especially since the Arab Gulf states (except Qatar) have lately declared Hizbullah a terrorist organization.

The question remains how the Iranian regime will respond to these new challenges. One cannot ignore the potential of Iranian-directed terrorist acts against Muqtada al-Sadr to eliminate him from the Iraqi political scene. Iran will do its utmost to bar al-Sadr’s faction from forming the next Iraqi government. Moreover, it is more than likely that the Ayatollahs will use their proxies for their destructive and subversive capabilities to destabilize the anti-Iranian wave rising against Iran. They will try to strengthen their grip on existing allies (Hizbullah, Houthis, and Bashar Assad) and intensify their arms race, ignoring all the limitations imposed on them by the United Nations, the United States, and the international community.