Analysis

With Over 400 Dead and PM Resigning, Iran's Hold on Iraqi Politics Is Eroding

The next Iraqi prime minister will have to at least profess distance from Iranian influence, without jeopardizing close economic ties with Tehran, including dependence on Iranian aid

Iraqi demonstrators gather as flames start consuming Iran's consulate in the southern Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf on November 27, 2019
AFP

The Iraqi parliament is expected to confirm the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as well as that of his government, on Sunday. The Iraqi public appears to have achieved the initial goal of the violent protests, in which more than 400 people have been killed and thousands more have been injured. But this is not the end of the “wicked government.”

Under the provisions of the Iraqi constitution, the current government will remain in power for at least another month, until a consensus can be reached on a candidate to lead the next one. After the country’s president assigns this task, the candidate has another month to form a coalition. On paper, the goal is simple, but experience shows that the selection of a consensus candidate could take a long time and that the formation of a government that parliament would approve could take many months.

During this period, the caretaker government cannot pass new legislation, implement reforms it has agreed to carry out or draw up a new budget that would meet the demands of the public and the various communities represented in parliament. That also means the tranquilizer shots Abdul-Mahdi’s government sought to give the public cannot be administered.

Iraq's former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi speaks during a funeral ceremony in Baghdad, October 23, 2019
AFP
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This will be a period during which anyone can attempt to influence the choice of prime minister and the composition of the government. Iran has the greatest interest in demonstrating its capacity to navigate this political process to its advantage. After losing its bid to keep Abdul-Mahdi in office, and out of concern that a victory for the demonstrators in Iraq would encourage protesters in Iran, Tehran has begun recruiting supporters in Shi’ite parties in Iraq, particularly in the Fatah Alliance — led by Hadi al-Amiri, the political leader of the Shi’ite paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units — in an effort to avoid further defeat.

Iran’s ability to shape the future of the Iraqi government has been eroded by the demonstrations, which began in October: Tehran itself was a target of the protests, which reached their peak with the torching of the Iranian consulate in Najaf. The next prime minister will have to at least profess distance from Iranian influence, without jeopardizing Iraq’s close economic ties with Iran, including a dependence on Iranian aid.

The United States, whose influence on political events in Iraq has been substantially diminished in recent years, should be concerned about the change in government and the appointment of a prime minister who might aim to expel American forces from the country. The United States views its foothold in Iraq, particularly on the border with Syria, as critical to blocking expansion of the territorial contiguity between Iraq and Syria, as well as to keeping the Islamic State organization from renewing its operations in southern Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, which has expanded its economic cooperation with Iraq since Abdul-Mahdi became prime minister, 13 months ago, sees his resignation as an opportunity to push for the appointment of a prime minister who would protect its interests, particularly vis-à-vis Iran, but the Saudis lack the political leverage needed to accomplish that.

These international considerations are not the demonstrators’ main concern. Although the protesters expressed satisfaction with Abdul-Mahdi’s plans to resign, they see it as just a first step. Their immediate demands are for free and fair parliamentary elections, the scrapping of sectarian and ethnic quotas for senior positions, more equal distribution of government funding and the elimination of corruption.

Their spokespeople are insistent on continuing the protests, and on Saturday they were joined by demonstrators in northern provinces and some of the Sunni provinces that up to now had been seen as apathetic to the protests, which have been centered in the cities and in decisively Shi’ite provinces. What appears to have tipped the scales and pushed Abdul-Mahdi to tender his resignation, despite his prior insistence in remaining on the job, was senior Shi’ite religious scholar Ali al-Sistani’s call for parliament “to reconsider … and conduct itself in accordance with what Iraq’s interest and what protecting the blood of Iraq’s sons requires.”

Sistani’s strong support for the demonstrators also made it clear to Iran that the hard-line policy that Iran has dictated to the Iraqi government and its militias could lead to civil war and a total loss of Iran’s ability to manage Iraq’s affairs remotely from Tehran.

An Iraqi demonstrator gestures during a general strike and roadblocks in the southern city of Basra, on November 26, 2019
AFP

There is no need to quibble over points of religious law to make clear the disparity that has existed for decades between the ideology and political-religious strategy of Sistani, who opposes the system of government in Iran, and the views of Islamic religious scholars and the leadership in Iran. Obedience to the directives of Sistani, who controls millions of followers, presents a barrier to Iranian ambitions; at the same time, it positions Iraq as a country in which the views of Islamic scholars still have supreme political authority.

And it’s not just Sistani. The separatist religious scholar Muqtada al-Sadr, whose religious prestige is derived from his being the son of leading religious authority Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, is calling for Iran to be removed from the Iraqi arena.

Granted that he is not a “source of emulation” like Sistani, but a large segment of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim population views him as a spiritual leader and not only a political leader with a private army at his disposal. Muqtada al-Sadr, who until about a week ago had agreed to support Abdul-Mahdi’s remaining Iraq’s prime minister – following a meeting in Iraq with the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, Qassem Soleimani — said this weekend that Abdul-Mahdi should resign. He also warned that if the government didn’t resign, it would spell the end of Iraq.

The question now is whether a caretaker government will be able to lay the foundations for the next government, in light of the continuation of the demonstrations and the political pressures in the country. Also in question is whether it can prepare for new elections or whether the fervor of the protests and the sense of achievement that has been engendered will only widen the demonstrations, including perhaps a violent confrontation not only between demonstrators and the regime but also within the protest movements.

Iraqi protester in a Money Heist outfit stands behind a Shiite Muslim cleric during an anti-government demonstration, Basra, November 29, 2019
AFP