As Iraq Goes to the Polls, the U.S. and Iran Hang Back

For the first time since the military defeat of the Islamic State, Iraqis are voting for a new parliament. And Tehran and Washington aren’t getting in the way.

A member of the Iraqi security forces after voting in Baghdad on May 10. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi security forces after voting in Baghdad on May 10. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

With all eyes on the regional fallout of the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday for their first parliamentary election since the rise — and bloody fall — of the Islamic State.

Though the vote is in part a referendum on the tenure of current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the run-up to the election has been remarkably staid compared with previous contests, with regional powers and the United States largely taking a back seat.

That’s because, for all the bitter recriminations and heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to ditch the nuclear accord, Iraq represents a rare area where the two countries’ interests actually coincide.

“The confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is obviously real, but there is a convergence of interests in Iraq,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. “The Iranians don’t want the post-2003 order to come apart because it’s in their interests, and from the American side, this is what they invested in. If it comes apart, then it was all for nothing.”

The United States, which has determined the course of Iraqi politics numerous times since it invaded the country in 2003, says it’s steering clear this time around.

“We’ve been focused on not playing into the campaign rhetoric of foreign interference. We’ve tried to be as hands off as possible,” a State Department official says.

If Abadi’s “Victory” coalition notches a win — and most observers are increasingly bullish on its chances — that is due in no small part to the prime minister’s deliberate staking out of relatively nonsectarian, nationalist positions. That has played out in Abadi’s domestic policies as well as in the campaign itself: His Shiite-dominated coalition is currently running candidates in both Sunni- and Kurdish-majority provinces, a contrast to previous years where many lists tended to be rigidly dominated by sect.

Abadi hasn’t just balanced among Iraq’s various domestic groups. He has also managed to keep both Washington and Tehran in his orbit, navigating successfully between the two most influential outside forces in Iraqi politics.

This has meant playing to both sides. He has allowed U.S. troops to operate in the country and re-established diplomatic relations with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, but also has continued to maintain relationships with Iranian-backed militias and Tehran itself.

“Abadi has found a middle ground. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with anybody and has managed to keep the government relatively neutral,” says Sajad Jiyad, the managing director of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad.

In this election cycle, Abadi’s double-barreled strategy seems to have paid off, both in terms of avoiding external interference and satisfying Iraqi voters eager for stability and normalcy after years of war.

In some respects, the brutal, yearslong fight against the Islamic State — and fears that the group could return — has helped drive the interests of Iran and the United States closer together. American forces stationed in the country calling in air support and Iranian advisors and militias doing the grunt work on the ground essentially tag-teamed to defeat the militants.

“As long as there are remnants of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there will be an interest for the Iraqis and Iranians to have the Americans assist, to make sure that ISIS doesn’t emerge,” says Randa Slim, the director for Track II dialogues at the Middle East Institute. “There is this interest in preserving the gains and preserving the regimes that are in place.”

That explains why neither Tehran nor Washington is trying to rock the boat, unlike previous years where both sides would sometimes intervene — often openly — to support their favorite candidate.

“The U.S. and Iran have essentially both taken the position of not overtly supporting any side before the elections,” Jiyad says. “Both have just allowed Iraqi voices to come to the fore.”

Granted, Trump’s decision this week to jettison the nuclear deal could throw Abadi off balance. “If there is further American escalation beyond the withdrawal, along with Iranian escalation, there will be pressure for Abadi to take sides. That will be hard for him,” Slim says.

Just as hard may be forming a new government, even if Abadi’s coalition wins a plurality of seats. The prime minister is named only after a coalition government is formed — perhaps months after the actual vote. Simply coming in first is no guarantee of heading the next government. In fact, in Iraqi elections since 2003, the parties that have won the most seats in parliament have almost as a rule not produced the prime minister.

“We will not know anything from the election results,” Hiltermann says. “If Abadi wins, he may not become prime minister, and if he doesn’t come out first, he may still not become prime minister.”

More important could be the talks over the formation of the governing coalition. Depending on the election results themselves, if more hard-line political groups — including certain Iranian-aligned Popular Mobilization Units, also known as Hashd — have a strong showing, pressure on Abadi to hew more closely to an Iranian position could also increase.

“If that’s the case, it will be hard to imagine how Abadi could form a coalition without including the Hashd or an understanding with them,” Slim says. “An understanding with the Hashd will mean an understanding on Iraq’s relationship with Iran and limits on what Abadi can do with the Gulf and the U.S.”

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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