Iranian influence in Iraq after Sadr’s victory

Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon coalition have now been confirmed as the winner of Iraq’s parliamentary elections with 54 seats. The closest runner-up is Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah list which has obtained 47 seats.

These results have already imposed a new dynamic, which will have an impact on the country’s domestic and foreign policy. The full extent of any reforms will depend on a number of factors, some of which will play out in the coming months.

Political fragmentation

While Sadr’s 54 seats translate into only 16.4 percent of the seats in the new parliament, Iraqi politics are now so fragmented that the importance of his share is significantly amplified. In previous years, formation of governments of national unity which brought together almost all of the parties that had representation in parliament was customary in Iraq, yet this will no longer be possible today for a variety of reasons.

Despite an electoral law that was designed to benefit larger coalitions, the next parliament will accommodate 28 parties that have 5 seats or less. Together these parties will occupy a total of 58 seats (or around 18 percent of the next parliament).

Iraq’s Sunni community is also impossibly splintered. Ten different Sunni parties will be represented in the next parliament and will occupy a total of 39 seats. It will be close to impossible to incorporate most if not all of these MPs in the next government, given that their respective political weight may not be worth the cost that would be incurred by including them.

The parliament’s remaining seats are also not equally distributed. Only three electoral alliances returned between 40 and 60 seats. An additional three alliances have between 20 and 40 seats. In that context, it is almost inevitable that the next government will include all three of the main alliances including Sadr’s Sairoon alliance.

In addition, despite the relatively minor difference between them (in 2014, there was a 58 seat difference between the winner and the closest runner-up), not all of the three major political alliances are created equal. Sadr is one of the only political figures who enjoy consistent and ever growing support among a specific constituency. In 2016, his supporters even stormed the Green Zone and ransacked the parliament building.

As a result, his alliance is far less susceptible to splintering and to floor-crossing. Sadr’s closest competitors are temporary alliances of convenience that are likely to be reduced in the coming months and years.

Iran’s interests at stake

All of the country’s main political forces appear to understand the new political and numerical realities that the elections have imposed and are now gravitating towards Sadr’s pole. A number of bilateral meetings have already taken place since the preliminary results were announced, many of which have involved senior leaders paying a visit to Sadr on his terms. Sadr is now in prime position to extract concessions and to impose part of his agenda. Given how aggressive he has been in the past, that is unlikely to please many actors.

Unsurprisingly, many Iranian officials are said to be displeased with the electoral results. Iran’s interests and influence were an important issue during the electoral campaign and will continue to be during the government formation process. Iranian influence is, in fact, one of the only substantive points of divergence between Iraq’s main parties.

Iran has significant influence in Iraq but it is far from the all-controlling behemoth that some analysts claim it is. More than a decade ago, Iran encouraged all of the country’s main Shia parties to close ranks in a single electoral alliance and also encouraged the formation of a mechanism to allow the parties to work out their differences behind closed doors.

These parties did not follow the script. They failed to improve security, participated in deepening corruption while simultaneously competing with each other for leadership, causing the alliance to fall apart in 2009.

Iran responded by modifying its principle objectives, which today appear to be to ensure the formation of a government that maintains friendly political, security and economic relations with Tehran. In 2014, it calculated that then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was best placed for that purpose, but was unable to keep him in government. It opposed Haider al-Abadi’s appointment as prime minister.

Perhaps most importantly, Iran is very aware that many Iraqis are suspicious of foreign interests in their country. For that reason, Iran seeks to maintain influence through accommodation and deliberately avoids confrontation for fear of a backlash.

In practical terms, what that means today is that Iran will likely seek to establish some or all of its main allies (mainly the Fatah and State of Law coalitions, who together have 72 seats) as a strong united voice in the next government.

Source » aljezeera

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