Iran could eventually fight its way into a protracted power struggle in Iraq | Iraq
A parliament besieged by demonstrators, a country adrift nine months after an election, a quarrel between national blocs and Iranian proxies: for many Iraqis, the latest political crisis is nothing new.
But to many observers, this standoff appears more complex and protracted than most in the more than two decades of efforts to entrench a democratic state in Iraq. From the Kurdish region in the north to Anbar province in the west and Shiite communities in the south, there seems little hope that a government pursuing a collective national interest can emerge from the power struggle.
Instead, many indicators suggest that after a debilitating and attritional campaign, Iran will eventually get its way, consolidating control over key areas of a weak state and dictating conditions on an unprecedented scale.
In Erbil, where rockets fired by Iranian proxies – as recently as Tuesday evening – caused disruption and uncertainty, leaders are slowly shifting their positions on what comes next.
The semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan had backed the bloc of influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which wants to curtail Iran’s power in the country. In the post-election horse trade, Sadr hoped to form a 329-seat government in parliament alongside Sunni parties.
But as attempts to appoint a president – the first step in the process – failed, the Kurdish region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, began to propose a new model of a decentralized confederation that would bleed power from Baghdad and give the Kurds and other ethno-sectarian constituencies more power over their own affairs.
Barzani told the London-based Chatham House think tank in April that the confederation could be a solution for all Iraqis. His remarks marked a break with adherence to a central model in which Washington has remained, until recently, invested since the US military toppled Saddam Hussein nearly 20 years ago.
U.S. interest in defending Iraqi democracy waned significantly during the first year of the Biden administration, leading Kurdish officials to consider allying with Iranian interests to eventually form a government in Baghdad.
A senior Kurdish official said Tehran had the advantage over Washington in Iraq. “There is one constant that will continue to survive and outsmart the United States. It was a predictable and preventable outcome. It took Sadr 10 months to accept it. He decided to quit because he realized what many still refuse to accept: Iran is here to stay.
Sadr, the big winner of last October’s election, ordered his deputies to resign from their posts in the spring, but remains the person best able to mobilize the Iraqi street. Wednesday was a sharp reminder of his powers, as hundreds of his supporters danced and sang in parliament after storming Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.
Sadr had mobilized his supporters to protest the appointment by an Iran-aligned group of former minister and regional governor Mohammed al-Sudani as prime minister. Although no longer in parliament, the controversial cleric appears to be insisting on appointing a new leader.
Iranian blocs suffered devastating losses in the elections, which would have drastically reduced Tehran’s powers in the Legislative Assembly and other Iraqi institutions. Since then, his proxies have tried to regain a foothold while pressuring opponents, particularly the country’s Kurds, who are trying to build a gas and oil export industry that operates separately from Baghdad.
Rocket attacks by Iranian proxies have frequently targeted Kurdish gas infrastructure, in moves that have been received as pointed warnings not to go overboard domestically and to return to the domestic negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Kurdish calls to Washington have gone unanswered, as the Biden administration tries to hammer out a deal for Iran to return to the nuclear pact.
“The gas project will reshape economic relations in the Middle East and beyond,” the Kurdish official said. “Why would the Iranians allow it without their buy-in? … We have to be serious about it – and make a deal with them. Bring them into the tent.