Iraq elections could be an opportunity to curb Iran influence

There has been a rising sentiment against Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs among members of the Shia community.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Campaign posters for parliamentary elections adorn a street in Baghdad, on April 19. (AP)
Beyond posters. Campaign posters for parliamentary elections adorn a street in Baghdad, on April 19. (AP)

The upcoming Iraqi parliamentary and local elections are likely to present an opportunity for Iraq to curb Iranian influence, which has dominated the country since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Ahead of the May 12 elections, the Iraqi government and influential politicians have been engaged in reconciliatory moves vis-a-vis Iraq’s neighbours, breaking its apparent overdependence on Iran.

A visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Saudi Arabia in October signalled the beginning of a new era of ties between Baghdad and Riyadh, which had broken down with Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

There have been several high-profile visits by Iraqi officials to Gulf countries and by Gulf officials to Iraq. The climax of the rapprochement bid saw Kuwait host an international conference for the reconstruction of Iraq in February.

Donors pledged $30 billion to rebuild Iraq, with the most significant contributions coming from Turkey and Gulf countries.

Turkey and Gulf bid to offset Iran influence

“Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey signalled a new willingness to work with Iraq’s Shia-led government as a means of offsetting Iranian influence,” wrote James F. Jeffrey and Michael Knights in an article for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank.

Abadi has reiterated that he would not take sides in any regional conflict and domestically he is running a cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic electoral campaign.

“Iraqi (and US) strategic interests would be best served if the country is analogous to Finland in the Cold War, maintaining some degree of autonomy from Tehran as well as Washington,” wrote Jeffrey and Knights.

To what extent such a scenario is possible largely depends on the outcome of Iraq’s elections and the electoral alliances that are formed afterward.

“Many candidates hope to return Iraq to its pre-1991 era, when the country led the Arab world in various fields,” wrote Maria Dubovikova in Arab News. “The development of Iraqi-Arab relations depends largely on Baghdad’s post-election desire to develop these ties and reduce the influence of Iran within its borders.”

While Iranian meddling in post-2003 Iraq had been explained by observers as a self-protection strategy, pro-Tehran figures are openly boasting of Iran’s reach in the region.

“America, for them to be present in the region, they need Iranian help. They must just come to terms and accept the presence of a powerful Iran,” pro-regime Iranian political analyst Seyed Hosseini told US public television network PBS last December.

Iran-backed militias

In addition to having the support of some Iraqi politicians, Iran has strong influence over many of Iraq’s militias, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

An October report by the Middle East Institute stated that 40 of an estimated 67 PMF militias “are believed to share close links with Iran’s al-Quds Force.”

“However, al-Quds Force’s ability to control the [PMF], and therefore major security structures of the Iraqi state, will not be uncontested, particularly from within the Shia community,” wrote Nicholas Heras, author of the report.

There has been a rising sentiment against Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs among members of the Shia community, including senior politicians and clerics.

“We try to maintain independence in [our] movement to prevent any unacceptable outside interference,” Ahmad Lashkari, a senior cleric associated with Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, told PBS, referring to Iran.

Iraqi Kurds turn to Iran 

This could explain why the visit to Tehran in January by Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), reportedly to mediate restoring ties with Abadi after the fallout over the Kurdistan independence referendum, had failed.

Ties remained strained, leading KRG officials to seek the mediation of Sistani instead. It was only when the KRG accepted Abadi’s terms with regards to federal authority over all of Iraq’s borders that Baghdad lifted its sanctions on Erbil.

“The key limit to Iranian influence is… Iraqi strength and, at least among its Arabs, unity,” wrote Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, on the think-tank’s website.

“Whenever Iraq is weak and divided, Iran can wield enormous influence. Its ability to target individuals and play on their fears allows Tehran to divide and conquer, co-opting various actors and then using their co-optation to ensnare still more,” he added.