Eyes set on Iran ahead of Iraq elections

The size of Iranian influence would likely depend on which electoral alliances are formed after elections.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Iraqi electoral commission employees update voting registries for the May 2018 parliamentary elections. (AFP)
Tehran’s shadow. Iraqi electoral commission employees update voting registries for the May 2018 parliamentary elections.(AFP)

LONDON - Observers are trying to gauge the potential influence Iran has in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections amid reports that Tehran is losing clout over Iraqi politicians.

In the 2010 national elections, politicians such as current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Islamist politician Ammar al-Hakim were viewed by many Iraqis as representing the pro-Iran camp in the country’s political map.

That wasn’t surprising as many dominant Iraqi parties or politicians were based in or funded by Iran when they were in exile during the rule of former President Saddam Hussein.

Today, however, not only are they seeking to present themselves as Iraqi nationalists to appeal to a cross-sectarian electorate as well as to Shia voters who do not want Tehran to have a say in Iraqi politics, these politicians are being accused by critics of belonging to the anti-Iran camp. Some of their foes have falsely accused them of being in the pro-US or, more bizarrely, pro-Saudi camp.

Many Shia voters who saw Iran in a positive light during past elections are blaming Tehran for many of Iraq’s woes since 2003.

This change of sentiment among many Shia voters is likely why some top Iraqi politicians have rebranded themselves as patriotic figures independent of Iran.

It must be noted that they did not present themselves as foes of Iran but as leaders aiming to steer Iraq towards good ties with all its neighbours and the international community.

One notable example is Abadi’s reiteration that Iraq won’t take sides in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sadr had suggested the same.

“Sadr, now 44, has taken another dramatic turn — reaching out to powerful Sunni Muslim countries, distancing himself from Iran and effectively burning down his own political movement,” wrote Jane Arraf for npr.org.

Nevertheless, a favourable view of Tehran, which translates to an invitation for Iran to meddle in Iraq, exists among Iraqi politicians and voters. This is particularly the case in the Fatih electoral list, which is predominately made up of former leaders of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Reactions are mixed towards the PMF. While some laud it for its role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), others loathe the group for alleged war crimes and abuse of civilians.

“The PMF will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister,” Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former deputy prime minister, told the Associated Press.

Support for Iran is high in the camp of Iraqi Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki, who was Iraq’s prime minister before Abadi. Iran also enjoys strong ties with many top Kurdish politicians in Iraq.

“Maliki is determined to prevent Abadi from gaining a second term. To block the prime minister, he has staked out a position closer to Iran and is seeking to ally with Iran-backed Shia groups,” Emma Sky wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Maliki appears to prefer to play the role of kingmaker rather than assume the premiership himself again.”

Critics accuse Iran of supporting its loyalists to hold senior positions in Iraq since 2003. At the same time, Iran’s foes in Iraq have reportedly faced attacks and threats.

Iran’s apparent partial loss of influence could explain why Tehran is reportedly seeking to funnel funds to support its loyalists in the Iraqi elections.

Last month, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, citing “worrisome evidence,” accused Iran of funnelling “not an insignificant amount of money” into Iraq to influence votes.

The Iraqi government denied that Iranian money is being used to influence elections in Iraq, branding such moves as unconstitutional.

“The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results,” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the AP.

The size of Iranian influence would likely depend on which electoral alliances are formed after election results are known. A government that includes former PMF leaders means that Tehran’s influence is back on the ascent.

“Abadi should merge the militias that helped vanquish [ISIS] into Iraq’s regular security forces. He should split the militiamen up and pay them directly, not through their leaders, in order to make them loyal to the state,” wrote the Economist.

While Tehran is likely to continue to influence politicians and militiamen in Iraq, the degree of that influence is at stake in May’s elections.