US experts unsure where Iraqi election would lead if Iranian influence endures

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a new Iraqi election law.
Sunday 17/11/2019
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper (L) with his Iraqi counterpart Najah al-Shammari in Baghdad, October 23. (AFP)
Deep concerns. US Defence Secretary Mark Esper (L) with his Iraqi counterpart Najah al-Shammari in Baghdad, October 23. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration called for early elections in Iraq amid protests in the country but the vote, if it took place, may not play out in Washington’s favour, US experts said.

Influential Iraqi Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called November 15 for a new election law that would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring “new faces” to power.

“Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless,” he said in his weekly sermon.

The statement came in response to massive — and violent — political protests and upheaval across Iraq since October 1.

The Trump administration urged Iraq to call early elections and introduce electoral reform. Washington has grown increasingly concerned about the protests, which the Iraqi Human Rights Committee said have led to the death of more than 320 people.

Activists have been met with a stringent crackdown by security forces, which fired live ammunition into crowds.

“The United States is seriously concerned by continued attacks against protesters, civic activists and the media, as well as restrictions on internet access, in Iraq,” said a statement released by the White House.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he intended to step down but that change seemed to fade away as Iraq’s ruling elite, encouraged by Tehran, rallied around him.

“The White House has long been unsatisfied with Adel Abdul-Mahdi and is ready to transition to a new government, so long as that government does not pull the plug on the US military presence in Iraq but, at this time, it is unclear if he actually will,” said Ramzy Mardini, a scholar at the US Institute of Peace.

Experts see tensions between Washington and Tehran as playing out in Iraq.

“Since Iraq serves as a battleground for the two countries’ regional competition, each side has an incentive to blame the sources of Iraqi discontent on the other. Tehran can point the finger at the disruptive effects of American aggression and sanctions, whereas Washington can point a finger at undue Iranian influence over the Iraqi government. Each side has an interest to manipulate and steer Iraqi public opinion,” said Mardini.

Analysts said Washington hoped the political upheaval in the Middle East can be used to buttress its campaign against Iran.

“For the Trump administration, which has designed much of its regional policy around the objective of countering Iran, the protests seem to complement its own maximum pressure campaign to shrink Iranian influence,” Jeffrey Martini and Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation wrote in the magazine Foreign Policy.

However, Mardini said, Iraqis view both Tehran and Washington as backing an illegitimate government. “US policymakers see Iran as behind the decision to employ violence against the protest movement and they want to make sure Iran takes the blame for the unrest but there is widespread belief within the political establishment that these protests are part of an American conspiracy and it is becoming more costly for political elites to be perceived as American partners,” Mardini said.

It is unclear who could benefit from future elections. “The Shia street is mobilised, more so than any other time in recent history, and higher voter participation and widespread discontent with the political establishment may serve as a new catalyst in Shia political dynamics,” said Mardini.

There is no indication that a more Washington-aligned successor would be voted in, analysts said. Martini and Tabatabai wrote: “If Abdul-Mahdi is forced out, whether with a successor government in place or not, there is nothing to suggest that the next government will be closer to the United States than Iran.”

With deep links to the Iraqi ruling class, Iran very well may be able to sway the election in its favour.

Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of the Middle East programme at the US Institute of Peace, said Iran “has the leverage points to influence the electoral process through political, security and communal actors it is supporting in Iraq.”

Hamasaeed said he recognised the importance of the electoral reforms that Washington is pushing for, stating that they could curtail Iranian influence in any elections.

The Iraqi government needs to work on “reforming the electoral process in such a way that would allow civic leaders to win seats, wide voter participation and proper international monitoring across the electoral process, among other things, would be necessary,” said Hamasaeed.