2021-10-09 17:49:28 Caught between US and Iran, Iraqis face choices in elections | Elections News
Caught between US and Iran, Iraqis face choices in elections | Elections News
Iraq, a seemingly perpetual battlefield caught in the crossfire between the US and Iran, holds elections at a time when domestic discontent with the eastern neighbor and criticism of the American presence are at an all-time high, paving the way for an uncertain future of the US-Iran relationship that has haunted Iraq for years.
The early elections, a response from interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the 2019 mass protest movement, would serve as a testament to how Iraq perceives Iran and the US, and, more broadly, the country’s relationships with its two most important partners.
Iraq has long been used as a proxy by the US and Iran in their competition for regional interests. The assassinations of General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, one of the top Iranian commanders and the other the then-deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, set in motion a series of tit for tat escalatory confrontations between the US and Iran with sanctions and rockets – all on Iraqi soil.
Al-Kadhimi has taken an active role in attempting to mediate, and tensions between the United States and Iran have since subsided. Analysts believe that escalation is still a possibility, and that much depends on how these two countries perceive each other and what stance the next Baghdad government takes.
“The tension between Iran and the United States peaked in 2020, after which it somewhat eased, but there is still the possibility that Iraq will revert to a conflict zone,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi politics researcher at the Century Foundation.
Iraqis, who are frequently the victims of Iran-US tensions, are growing increasingly dissatisfied with these two countries’ influence in their country. When protests erupted in October 2019 in response to the government’s inability to provide basic services such as electricity, protesters quickly shifted their focus to structural social reform, including a call to end Iranian and American intervention in Iraq.
Demonstrators chanted “We Want a Nation” and “No to America, No to Iran,” while angry protesters attacked the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf, in a rare united call to reject Iranian and American influence in the country in a deeply divided society.
Despite the fact that the protests have since died down following a brutal crackdown and an unforgiving pandemic, protesters’ desire to reject foreign influence remains.
However, given Iraq’s tumultuous relationship with both the US and Iran, balancing Baghdad’s interests with both Tehran and Washington is a near-impossible task.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, striking that balance while securing its own country will undoubtedly be one of the most difficult issues the new government will face.
Iran has actively supported a number of hardline Iranian-aligned groups in the elections, including the Fateh alliance electoral bloc, which hosts the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group.
Hussein Muanis, who is openly affiliated with the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, one of the US-designated “terrorist” organizations, recently entered the parliamentary race, signaling Iran’s growing and overt influence.
However, Iran’s hold on the elections is far from certain.
A schism between these pro-Iran groups and the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who vocally opposes Iranian and American influence, among Iraq’s Shia, could complicate Iran’s role in the country.
According to analysts, despite the Sadrist Movement’s opposition to Iranian influence, al-Sadr understands that a coalition government cannot exist without Iran’s blessing and support.
“Sadrist cannot form its own government without a coalition, and years of experience have taught them that working with Iran is an unavoidable part of the process,” Jiyad explained.
‘Tainted reputation,’ they say.
Meanwhile, pro-Iranian militia groups orchestrated a targeted assassination campaign that killed dozens of activists in the aftermath of the street protests and alienated many Iraqis, even in southern Iraq, where Iran traditionally has a loyal following. Many protesters now see Iran as a threat to the country’s progress.
“The reputation of Iran-aligned groups has been tainted because many Iraqis hold them responsible for violence against peaceful protesters, do not approve of them dragging Iraq into conflict with the US, and see them as part of a corrupt system,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the US Institute of Peace.
Analysts say it’s unclear whether that discontent will be reflected in the election due to the possibility of low voter turnout.
“One should not exaggerate Iraqis’ resentment of Iran,” Jiyad said. “The election will not have a high turnout, which means that the elites will still get votes, as will those close to Iran.”
Because of Iraq’s entangled relationship with Iran, Iraq’s well-being is inextricably linked to the latter, without which Iraq could run out of food and electricity. Analysts believe that the same cannot be said of the United States.
“The bilateral relationship between Iran and Iraq is critical for both countries – it is deeply rooted in history and will continue despite the threat of boycotts, sanctions, and war,” Jiyad said.
The United States had dominated Iraqi politics until 2011, when then-President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of the majority of American troops. Despite the fact that the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group brought some troops back to Iraq, their presence in the country has drawn incremental criticism from Iraqis since the group’s effective defeat in 2017.
The Biden administration has announced that it will withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of the year, though many analysts believe that such a withdrawal is merely rhetorical given that the US has only played auxiliary roles in assisting Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIL (ISIS).
Despite Iran’s animosity toward the US, some experts argue that its goal of completely expelling the Americans is “reality clashing with rhetoric.” Domestic insurgencies are still a top priority for all sectarian groups.
“You can’t go lower than 2,500 troops – any lower would be zero,” said Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi politics researcher. “The United States’ presence in Iraq has already dwindled to a trickle.”
However, regardless of how the elections turn out, the potential coalition government will not necessarily change how the US and Iran deal with each other – confrontations may still occur, and without strong governance, Iraq will be at the mercy of the region’s powers, according to analysts.
“The election will undoubtedly influence the type of government we will see in Baghdad and how they will deal with both countries,” Jiyad said. “However, the majority of how Iran-US tensions could play out is dependent on those two countries and how well they deal with each other.”
This sentiment is shared by ordinary Iraqis as well. “We need a strong government – as long as we have one, there will be less influence,” said Jowad, a Baghdad resident. “However, I’m not sure we’ll ever have one.”