Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 22:42 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 22:42 | SYDNEY

Big trouble in little Mesopotamia


Rodger Shanahan


10 May 2010 08:49

While the post-election world of Iraqi politics is still mired in confusion, as the prime minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition and former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition seek coalition partners, one thing is for certain: Iran seeks to be the winner in the long run. 

Iran faces challenges on several fronts; the internal security crackdown by an unpopular regime in the face of continued public opposition to its 2009 electoral manipulation, an economy that struggles to grow anywhere near sufficiently to accommodate the demands of a youthful population of 70 million people, a nuclear program that is causing nervousness in the region and has drawn the ire of the UN and the west, all buttressed by a revolutionary Islamic ideology that struggles for relevance and unity 30 years after its implementation. 

But in its dealings with Iraq it has shown a clear understanding of its own national interest. Iraq is a complex and immature political landscape. It thus represents an opportunity for Iran to achieve what it has sought since pre-revolutionary days — regional influence befitting its view of itself and ultimately, the role of regional security guarantor in place of the US. 

The first step in achieving this aim is to establish an Iraq devoid of US troop presence, where pro-Iranian Shi’a dominate politically but where the Shi’a nationalists and Sunnis are sufficiently empowered to ensure their quiescence but not powerful enough to stymie Iranian interests. And this influence is best entrenched while the institutions of state are still relatively weak.

In the not too distant future it is quite possible that the two countries may once again become rivals: as energy producers, as centres of Shi’a Islamic learning (and the economic benefits that accrue with it), but more worryingly for Iran as alternative models for Shi’a (and indeed multi-confessional) political development.

The notion of Iran as Iraqi kingmaker therefore sits well with Tehran. And if the post-election events are anything to go by it appears to have made a good start in achieving this position. Persian New Year coincided with the end of the elections and before the results had been announced which provided a convenient opportunity for those seeking Iranian support to meet in Tehran.

Little wonder then that the main Shi’a groupings, along with the Kurdish president and Shi’a vice-president all attended. Representatives of Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc later met the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.

But even as US influence recedes as its troops leave, the field is not being left to Iran. Saudi Arabia has sought to blunt Iran’s influence by engaging with a broad spectrum of Iraqi political players, in contrast to its virtual dismissal of the 2005 election (along with many Iraqi Sunnis) which resulted in a diminution of its influence.

This time all main political players have been invited to Riyadh for talks with King Abdullah, including the Sadrists (while their leader Muqtada as-Sadr remains studying in Qum rather than Najaf in Iraq) and even Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Shi’a Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq. Somewhat pointedly al Maliki has been denied an audience.

For those interested in Arab political development it is going to be an interesting struggle to see whether nationalism, ethnicity, sectarianism or naked economic self-interest wins out in Iraq in the long term. There is no doubt that Iran seeks to become the dominant external influence in its western Arab neighbour, but there are any number of potential roadblocks both at present and into the future that may serve to stymie Tehran’s intentions. Iran’s fight for influence has not been won — it is only just starting.

Photo by Flickr user Daniella Zalcman, used under a Creative Commons license.