Breaking away from Iran (Part 2): Iraq

The mass resignations of 73 recently elected Iraqi lawmakers led by nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr are a victory for Iran’s attempts to regain control over Baghdad’s politics.

Iraq, Iran, politics
Motorists in Sadr City, Iraq, drive past a poster bearing the image of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi lawmakers of the Sadrist bloc, the largest in parliament with 73 seats, resigned on June 13, 2022, amid an ongoing political stalemate over forming a new government. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Muqtada al-Sadr’s exit from politics may have been driven by fear of assassination
  • Tehran is closer to being able to create a pro-Iranian majority in Iraq’s parliament
  • Without massive outside help, Iraq’s elections will never be democratic again

The first part of this series explored how, in the May 2022 elections, Iran lost control over Lebanon’s parliament. However, through Hezbollah and its allies, Iran can still paralyze the Lebanese parliament and manipulate lawmakers to serve Tehran’s interests.

This final segment explores how Iran is attempting to achieve the same goal in Iraq, after initially losing its hold over the Iraqi parliament in the October 2021 elections. Securing a grip on the lawmakers is essential to Tehran establishing hegemony over the government in Baghdad.

In both Middle East nations, Iran remains a powerful force. But voters in both countries dealt setbacks to Iran’s supporters at the ballot box, a first step in the arduous struggle to shake off the Iranian yoke. Tehran, however, is trying to make a postelection comeback through aggressive meddling in both nations. Its campaign of influence and intimidation is currently more successful in Iraq than in Lebanon.

Iraq’s parliamentary elections

In October 2021, Iraq held early elections for its 329-seat parliament. For more than eight months, the nation of 40 million people has remained in leadership chaos with a stalemate over the formation of a new government and a ruling coalition in parliament.

These early elections were demanded by millions of almost exclusively Shia Muslim demonstrators who protested the corruption of their own Shia-controlled government and Iran’s clout in Baghdad.

The demonstrations were partially successful. They catapulted Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the premiership, and he introduced a new electoral law that paved the way for the October vote. Inexplicably, many of the same demonstrators boycotted the elections that they had demanded, leading to a record low 42 percent voter turnout. Surprisingly, though, the results still inflicted a major blow against Iran’s supporters. The pro-Iranian militias, who murdered at least 600 demonstrators and wounded thousands of them, lost 26 out of their 48 parliamentary seats. Iranian allies remained strong but, like in the Lebanese elections of May 2022, the pro-Iranian parties lost their parliamentary majority in Iraq.

Muqtada al-Sadr wins, then quits

The great winner was the maverick Shia politician, junior cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Out of 329 seats, his mostly Shia Alliance Towards Reform party won the largest number, 73 in all, potentially turning him into a kingmaker.

Mr. Sadr is an Iraq-first nationalist who opposes Iranian control just as he opposed America’s invasion. Tehran’s main problem with him is his intense hatred of Iran’s champion in Iraq, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law party won a considerable 34 seats.

Tehran was livid when Muqtada al-Sadr succeeded in gluing together a slight majority coalition that excluded Iran’s supporters.

Unlike the Lebanese case, where the Shias remained united, Mr. Sadr’s passionate loathing for Mr. Maliki and his strong reservations about Iran’s influence ripped the Shia camp asunder. Iran could not reunite the Shia camp, so it resorted to paralyzing parliament. Then it devised a way to turn the tables on Mr. Sadr without going to new elections that Tehran’s supporters were almost certain to lose again.

A few months after the elections, Mr. Sadr succeeded in gluing together a slight majority coalition called Saving the Homeland, consisting of 168 out of 329 lawmakers. It included Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, but excluded Iran’s supporters. Tehran was livid. In a masterstroke, it persuaded a key supporter, Dr. Faiq Zaidan, president of the Federal Supreme Judicial Council and chief of the Federal Court of Cassation, to issue a ruling that effectively froze parliament. According to the new ruling, a parliamentary majority is not enough to elect a new president of Iraq. It now also requires a two-thirds quorum of lawmakers to be present. Even though Mr. Sadr managed to recruit to his coalition more than the required 165 parliament members for a majority, he now needed to convince an extra 53 members outside of his coalition to just show up for the vote.    

The new president is the only one who can pick a prime minister, who then appoints the cabinet of ministers. Mr. Sadr managed to convince many neutral MPs to attend the confirmation vote on the new president, but still failed to reach the required two-thirds quorum. The court’s new ruling is unconstitutional, but Mr. Sadr and his supporters have no higher authority to which they could appeal.

Dr. Zaidan is a longtime supporter of Iran. During his PhD studies at the Islamic University of Lebanon, he was believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah. On June 9, 2021, he pressured the Iraqi judiciary to release militia leader Qasim Muslih just two weeks after he was arrested for the premeditated murder of a protest leader. In March 2022, Dr. Zaidan’s Federal Supreme Court disbanded a committee that had been formed by Prime Minister Kadhimi to investigate corruption cases and major crimes. This move evidently came because the committee investigated a few pro-Iranian politicians and officials.  

The new court ruling brought the democratic process to a halt, giving Tehran the time it needed to pulverize Mr. Sadr’s coalition. Pressure on the Sunni parties peeled off too few MPs. Therefore, the Kurds became the next target of the intimidation campaign. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a Kurdish party, won 16 seats. Led by the Talabani family, PUK had collaborated with pro-Iranian parties from the outset. The bigger Kurdish party, the Barzaniled Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) with 32 parliamentary seats, is the leading force in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. It had supported Mr. Sadr and opposed Iran’s allies.

Iraq is enormously important to Iran as a strategic and economic asset.

The first Iranian step to coerce the KDP to change sides came on March 13.  Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) lobbed 12 missiles from Iranian territory on a private villa in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The villa belongs to Baz Karim Barazanji, a Kurdish oil and gas magnate closely associted with the KDP. Tehran announced its full responsibility and accused Mr. Barazanji and, by implication, the KDP, of cooperating with Israel against Iran in intelligence and sabotage operations. The KDP did not budge an inch. On March 28 a mob of pro-Iranian militiamen torched the KDP Baghdad office. The police did not intervene. As a sign of no confidence in Baghdad’s government, the KDP decided to demolish what was left of its office and suspend all its activities in the Iraqi capital indefinitely. And yet they still refused to change sides in parliament. In early May, therefore, Iran sent an additional message when a militia fired six rockets at the Kawergosk refinery near Erbil, which is owned by Mr. Barazanji’s KAR Group. In June, pro-Iranian militias launched two more multi-rocket attacks on Kurdish gas installations owned by the same group. Still, the KDP remained staunchly committed to Mr. Sadr’s anti-Iranian parliamentary coalition. The attacks continued on June 22, 24 and 25, with rockets striking the Khor Mor natural gas field, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan. The site is key to the KDP’s plans to export gas to Europe and Turkey. No group has claimed responsibility.

What seems to have helped them keep their steady course so impressively was their Turkish backing. While the PUK, whose territory borders Iran, is close to Iran, the KDP, whose territory borders Turkey, fears Iran and has economic and security ties with Turkey. Despite the outside appearance of friendship, Turkey and Iran are at odds over a host of issues. One is Turkey’s impending replacement of Iranian natural gas with Kurdish. Other tensions are over disputed water resources in an era of scarcity, Iranian support for anti-Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq and northern Syria, Afghan refugees that Iran is pushing into Turkey and more. Turkey will be happy to see the Iranian influence in Iraq diminish, and therefore it is apparently stiffening the back of the KDP. Either way, the KDP proved too tough a nut for Iran to crack.

After some eight months of efforts, as Mr. Sadr still refused to join forces with pro-Iranian Shia parties, Iran made its next move, and it worked miracles. Suddenly, on June 12, Mr. Sadr announced that he was withdrawing from the political process and ordered all his 73 followers elected to the parliament to resign.

Under Iraq’s constitution, even such a mass exodus does not automatically trigger new elections. The 73 seats won by Mr. Sadr’s forces are to be apportioned to the next highest vote-getters in their respective electoral zones. On June 23, 64 replacement candidates were sworn in as members of parliament while nine seats remained vacant.

Shia lawmaker Ahmed Rubaie, whose party is part of an Iran-backed bloc, said that his coalition is now the main force in the 329-seat parliament. “Following the Sadr lawmakers’ resignation, we can confirm that we are the largest bloc in parliament with around 130 seats after the swearing-in of the new lawmakers,” Mr. Rubaie told reporters. By early July, there is still some confusion regarding the number of pro-Iranian MPs. But even following the resignation of Mr. Sadr’s 73 MPs, the pro-Iranian coalition has not reached yet the magic number of 165 MPs needed for a majority, let alone the 218 needed for a quorum. Iran and its supporters are therefore concentrating now on the independents.

Iraq, Iran, politics
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (L) meets Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani during his official visit in Erbil, Iraq on March 14, 2022. © Getty Images

Why did Mr. Sadr resign?

What moved Mr. Sadr to make such a dramatically brave or desperate or cowardly step?

Mr. Sadr is known for being tough, but also unstable and unpredictable. However, his breathtaking achievement in the elections and his remarkable negotiating success, having managed to create a multiethnic parliamentary majority, combined with his huge grassroots support among the poor Shia and his considerable militia power, turned him into the most successful and powerful politician in Iraq by far.

There are three rational explanations.

One is that he regarded the political crisis to be insoluble and preferred Iranian domination and exploitation over chaos.

Another explanation is that he wants chaos. He may believe that his dramatic step will either encourage others to resign and force new elections or that the young Shia generation will protest again. The impression is that the demonstrators are a spent force, and even their representatives in parliaments are disunited and disoriented. Yet, if Mr. Sadr orders his grassroots supports to demonstrate, this may reignite the mass protests.

A third and most likely explanation is fear. On July 6, 2020, a leading Iraqi security researcher and Prime Minister Kadhimi’s close friend, Hisham al-Hashimi, was fatally shot outside his house in Baghdad. On November 7, 2021, three explosive-laden drones were launched, apparently by a pro-Iranian militia, targeting the prime minister’s home. The house was seriously damaged, and a few of the prime minister’s guards were injured. Mr. Sadr could expect the same.

Collective distraction

By early July, the Iraqi parliament and political system were unable to agree on anything, except for the topic that almost all 40 million Iraqis care about the least: Israel. On May 26, the 250 Iraqi parliamentarians who showed up adopted unanimously a law proposed by Mr. Sadr. Stressed by the insinuations that his allies, the KDP, are Israeli agents, he proposed to “criminalize the normalization of ties with the Zionist regime” on the penalty of death or life imprisonment. Israel was not even mentioned by name.

In 1969, the dictatorial Baath regime enacted such a one-paragraph law. This time the democratic parliament of Iraq composed three pages with minute details. The law imposes a “prohibition on establishing diplomatic, political, military, economic, cultural or any form of ties” with Israel. “Normalization” is defined as “any act that would achieve any form of engagement, whether directly or indirectly, with the aim of establishing relations with the Zionist entity.’’

Through its loyal militias, Iran will turn elections in Iraq into a nightmare of murder, kidnapping, threats and bribery.

Tehran congratulated the Iraqi people for this patriotic act. The Sunnis were in support, but most of the KDP representatives were absent. In an era in which Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco are at peace with Israel and even Sudan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are considering improved relations, it seems that the deeply conflicted and dysfunctional Iraqi political system is returning to Saddam Hussein’s trick. Hussein managed to distract the Iraqis from the ills of his brutal dictatorship by drowning them in a torrent of hate toward Israel. This way he cleverly manipulated the Arab and Islamic identities of the Iraqis to deflect criticism. Rather than pulling their country out of its endemic corruption and subservience to Iran’s economic and strategic interests, the Iraqi politicians are again trying to unite the nation against an imaginary dragon. This time, however, they are doing it under the aegis of Hussein’s sworn nemeses, the Iranian ayatollahs.



What role Mr. Sadr will now play is unclear. He still commands his own militia, and his movement will likely remain a strong force in Iraqi society. If parliament is in pro-Iranian hands, there will be no new elections and Mr. Sadr will be marginalized for a while.

The most likely scenario is that Iran will succeed in cobbling together a pro-Iranian majority coalition, with the additional number of lawmakers required for the two-thirds quorum. If they get a majority but not a quorum, a legal device will be found to circumvent the quorum rule. A new president will be elected. It may be the incumbent, the gifted Kurdish PUK-affiliated Barham Salih, who will appoint a prime minister of Iran’s choosing. It may even be the caretaker incumbent Mr. Kadhimi. Having no party of his own, Mr. Kadhimi will be even more of a captive prime minister than he is now. However reluctantly, his government will be pro-Iranian. Iraq will sink deeper into official corruption and into the Iranian quicksand. Mr. Sadr’s revenge will be that without new elections any government will have a mark of illegitimacy, but Tehran can live with that.

A less probable but still conceivable scenario is new elections. For many reasons, this is an enormously complicated process. However, if no forces are able to assemble the required majority and quorum, an extended deadlock will send the Iraqis back to the ballots. If the new campaign is democratic, and if Mr. Sadr runs again, it will further weaken Iran’s position. From 42 percent of voters who showed up last October, participation will rise among an anti-Iranian electorate.

Iraq is enormously important to Iran as a strategic and economic asset. In October 2021, Iran’s supporters mainly failed to do better in the elections because Iran’s strongman IRGC Quds Force Commander General Qasem Suleimani, had been assassinated by the United States.

In the next elections, Iran will make every conceivable effort to make sure that its supporters win. Therefore, without massive protection from the United Nations as well as Arab and Western nations, Iraqi elections will never be democratic again. Through its loyal militias, Iran will turn elections in Iraq into a nightmare of murder, kidnapping, threats and bribery. With no outside democratic support, this will be a battle between courage and terror. Unfortunately, in Iraq, terror wins every time. This is the lesson from 35 years of Baath rule.

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