As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi was deciding on coalition partners for his re-election this May, the two operatives in the room were Qassem Suleimani, the notorious commander of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Hadi Al Ameri, one of the most important commanders of the Shia militias in Iraq under Mr Suleimani's command.
Mr Suleimani pressured the Iraqi prime minister into partnering with Shia militia commanders such as Mr Al Ameri, whom Iran funds and controls. Mr Al Abadi, who is Shia, initially caved under pressure, but reversed his decision two days later and is now in a coalition that includes Sunni Muslim parties in an attempt to show cross-sectarian unity.
That meeting speaks volumes about the state of Iraq's elections – the first since the defeat of ISIL last year – and the country's political future. At first glance, Iran appears to still wield enormous influence over Iraqi politics. Indeed, Tehran has been entrenched militarily in Iraq since the United States-led invasion of the country in 2003. It also exercises considerable soft power, in the form of running religious schools and educational programmes. However, there are several changes in the political landscape that make it difficult for Iran to maintain the significant power it has built up. And the Iranian regime appears to be worried.
First, there are multiple Shia parties running in May's elections for parliamentary seats. Although some are in Mr Suleimani's control, others are more independent. This proliferation of Shia parties has effectively diluted Iran's influence over the course of the country's politics.
Second, like Mr Al Abadi, some Iraqi Shia leaders who were once beholden to Iran have diversified their political base to include Sunni parties as well. Part of this expansion has been driven by a rise in Iraqi nationalist sentiment. The war against ISIL, a highly sectarian extremist movement, was also a source of national unity. In addition, Iran overplayed its hand during the premiership of Nouri Al Maliki, a staunch supporter of Tehran, who marginalised Sunnis and heightened sectarian strife. There is a general view that his successor, Mr Al Abadi, who was determined to be more inclusive of the Sunnis, has unified the country to some degree.
Third, ordinary Shia citizens watched as the Maliki government, backed by Iran, failed to prevent ISIL from occupying a third of Iraq in 2014. Local sources report that in some Shia communities such as Basra and Najaf, Iraqis are looking for new leadership that is not affiliated with Iran. The rampant corruption enabled by Iran has given rise to anti-Islamist and anti-sectarian sentiments.
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Fourth, the clerical leadership in the holy city of Najaf wants to minimise Iran’s sway over the country, according to high-ranking clerics there. Ayatollah Sistani in 2014 called for Iraqis to take up arms against ISIL, which inadvertently led to the creation of Shia militias under Iran’s control. This development has convinced high-ranking clerics that Iran’s meddling in Iraq must be contained. There is also a theological dispute dating back centuries: the Iraqi Shia clerical establishment believes Iran’s practice of supreme clerical rule, implemented by Ayatollah Khomeini following the 1979 Islamic revolution, is antithetical to the Shia religious tradition.
Finally, growing ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch foe, have begun to counterbalance some of Iran's hold on Iraqi politics. Riyadh reopened its embassy in Baghdad last year for the first time since 1991 and is opening a consulate in Basra. Riyadh will soon begin issuing entry visas to Iraqis who wish to visit the kingdom and Saudi players received a warm and raucous welcome in Basra for a friendly football match against Iraq's national team.
Responding to the warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Riyadh in February of meddling in Iraqi affairs. “We are very worried about Saudi activities in Iraq prior to the elections” Mr Zarif said. “Iran has a good presence in Iraq and that presence has always been respected by the Iraqi people and made us influential in this country.”
According to Iraq’s Election Commission, there are 7,000 candidates and 88 coalitions and parties competing for 329 parliamentary seats. The poll is scheduled to be held on May 12 and the contest will also include selecting the prime minister, who must be Shia, according to the Iraqi constitution.
Moqtada Al Sadr, the famed Shia cleric who had been an Iranian loyalist and who fought US troops during the early years of the invasion of Iraq, has formed his own coalition with Iraqi Communists, leftists and other secular liberals, including Sunnis, over Iranian objections. Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly denounced the new alliance. "We will not allow liberals and communists to govern Iraq," he said. In response, Iraqis from across the political spectrum condemned Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Mr Al Sadr is far less beholden to Iran than he was even five years ago and now portrays himself as a nationalist. Lately, he has positioned himself as a counterweight to Iranian influence, open to compromise.
Mr Al Maliki, the former prime minister, also has his own coalition called State of Law, or Dawlat al-Qanun, while Mr Al Ameri, the Shia militia commander and ally of Mr Suleimani, has established the Conquest Coalition, which is purely Shia.
Mr Al Abadi’s decision to reverse his pro-Iranian course and not align with the Popular Mobilisation Units is more evidence of Shia political fragmentation. Officially, the PMUs are under the authority of Iraq’s government, but in reality they are in Mr Suleimani’s grip.
Some analysts have argued that Iran will still benefit from the election results: the more Shia coalitions in the parliament, goes the theory, the better it is for Tehran. But given the diffuse and fragmented state of Shia politics, that proposition is more of a question mark than a certainty. Others argue that weapons always win the day and Iran is the keeper of Iraq's weapons. However, unlike a country such as Lebanon, where Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah is the single most powerful military and political force, Iraq has multiple centres of military power of which the Iranian-backed PMUs are a significant, but not the only, part.
No doubt it will be difficult to form a government in Iraq after the elections, given all the competing alliances. Iran’s influence will remain, but the degree is likely to diminish. Iraq’s coalitions across the spectrum have made a point of removing the word Islamic from their titles, signalling an attempt to emphasise nationalism rather than religion. Shia Islam, which was prioritised after Saddam Hussein’s secular rule ended, still remains a defining communal identity in Iraq. But now the question of who speaks for Shias is up for debate.
Geneive Abdo is a senior resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation and the author of The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia-Sunni Divide