Arab World: Iran’s silent victory

The West praised recent Iraqi elections as an indicator that the country is emerging as a democratic state capable of shaping its own destiny, and yet the current political vacuum demonstrates just how wrong that assessment may be

Suicide bomb Baghdad (photo credit: AP)
Suicide bomb Baghdad
(photo credit: AP)
Earlier this week, 28 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a series of bombings in Baghdad. The bombings, which have been attributed to al-Qaida or other Sunni extremists, came against a background of political impasse, following the inconclusive results of elections last month.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, commenting on the attacks, directly linked them to the dangerous political vacuum that has emerged in Iraq. Zebari told reporters that the bombings were a “political attack, sending a message that the terrorists are still in business... because of the vacuum of forming the next government, they wanted to send that message.”
The terrorists of al-Qaida are not the only ones closely watching developments in Iraq. And in fact, the other players taking advantage of the political vacuum may just be more dangerous to the region than the Sunni jihadists.
Observe: The initial results of the elections suggested a narrow victory for the mixed Sunni and Shi’ite list of former prime minister Iyad al-Allawi. However, in a manner by now familiar in regional elections, the results of the polls were the beginning of the real battle, rather than its conclusion. Allawi has run into severe difficulty in his attempts to form a coalition, and the Islamic National Accord, which is linked with Iran, is emerging as a key kingmaker in the process.
WHY IS Allawi experiencing problems in forming a coalition? The former prime minister’s Al-Iraqiya list appears to have won the largest single number of seats in the 375 member parliament. With 95 percent of the votes counted, however, the list achieved far less than an overall majority – winning 91 seats overall, far short of the 163 needed to form a government. The need for a coalition was obvious. As the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the bloc with the largest number of seats be given 30 days to form a government, Allawi assumed that as the head of the list with the largest single number of seats, he would be tasked with forming one.
However, former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shi’ite State of Law list won 89 seats, petitioned the Supreme Court regarding the precise meaning of the term “bloc.” He succeeded in obtaining a ruling stating that a bloc does not mean a single list, but might also mean an alliance of lists concluded after the elections and ready by the time the parliament sits. The new parliament is due to sit at the end of this month. Maliki is therefore in the process of negotiating with smaller lists in an attempt to secure their support to enable him to continue as prime minister and form the next government.
In third place in the elections were the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance, with 70 seats, followed by the Kurdish bloc, with 43 seats. Allawi, whose secular, predominantly Sunni list includes individuals formerly linked to the Ba’ath Party of Saddam Hussein, will be at a disadvantage in seeking to appeal to either of these blocs. The INA has an obvious reason to prefer the moderate Shi’ites of Maliki’s list. Allawi’s relations with the Kurds are also poor. This means that despite his apparent victory, Allawi may end up having to settle for a more junior post than prime minister and a secondary role in any coalition formed.
But in the unlikely event that Allawi does form a coalition, the arithmetic dictates that it would almost certainly also include the pro-Iranian INA. An emerging Maliki-led coalition, meanwhile, would be a predominantly Shi’ite affair, heavily dependent on the votes and support of the INA.
The pro-Iranian forces have thus emerged from the elections as the effective kingmakers. Their preferred tactic has been to allow the American occupation to play itself out and depart – leaving them with the key influence in the country once the US has gone. US forces are currently poised to begin pulling out toward the end of this year.
American commentators proudly point to the undoubted military achievements of the “surge” in reducing (largely Sunni) insurgent violence. However, a partial victory over the primitive bitter-enders of the Sunni insurgency will appear somewhat Pyrrhic if it ends up making Iraq more susceptible to Iranian influence.
The Iranian regime is in the game for the long term, and the name of the game is domination of the region. This may at times require the use of insurgent-style violence (witness Hizbullah on the streets of West Beirut in May 2008, or the Houthi rebels in north Yemen). It may at times require the use of diplomacy, prevarication and obfuscation (see the endless dance of the regime around the nuclear issue in international forums). It may also at times depend more on quiet and successful political organization than on thundering boots on the ground. And that appears to be the direction taken in Iraq.
The result of recent political developments led one Iraqi-Lebanesejournalist, Hussein Abdul Hussein, to conclude in a recent column thatthe true result of the Iraqi elections was that “Iran has managed yetagain to defeat the United States and its regional Arab partners.” Thisdoes not mean, of course, that the Iranians cannot be stopped. Itdoesn’t mean that the brutal and unrepresentative regime in Iran is notvulnerable to countersubversion and, where necessary, counterforce. Butfor this to be effective, there needs to be a recognition of the long,often silent, relentless game that Teheran is playing across the MiddleEast – and a consequent reordering of Western and allied priorities toface it.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.