Iran’s Political Victory in Iraq, and What the U.S. Can Do about It

November 4, 2022 | Bilal Wahab
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Like Israel, Iraq has been mired in several years of political deadlock that may have finally come to an end. The Jewish state is just now entering the period of post-election bargaining that will lead to the formation of a new governing coalition, while the new government in Baghdad was sworn in last week. Unlike Israel, however, the new government is supported by an encroaching foreign power that props it up with a network of well-armed militias. The new prime minister is Mohammed Shia al-Sudani; the foreign power is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bilal Wahab explains:

On paper, Sudani’s government was formed as a consensus entity that reaches across ethno-sectarian lines. In practice, however, it is dominated by Shiite parties who waited until after they engineered a ruling plurality in parliament before inviting Sunni and Kurdish parties to participate. Their platform includes a long to-do list of seemingly beneficial policy initiatives, but with no accountability measures attached to failure. Rather, the new government seems tailor-made to advance anti-democratic trends, ignoring the will of the millions of Iraqis who rose up in 2019 against a system based on divvying state resources and power among sectarian patronage networks.

In essence, the Shiites have won the ethno-sectarian war. . . . It is therefore logical to assume that their primary goals remain unchanged—namely, to take over the state, develop the Popular Mobilization Forces, [militias under de-facto Iranian direction], as a parallel institution to the national military, and join Iraq and Iran at the hip (which would also facilitate closer connections with China and Russia).

For too long, Washington has underestimated its leverage and tools in Iraq. The powers that be in Baghdad are well aware of this leverage, however—they know they would not have had the luxury to wage a yearlong political battle without the United States actively preventing the emergence of another Islamic State insurgency. Indeed, Sudani will not be doing Washington a “favor” by allowing U.S. military advisors to stay in Iraq—it’s the other way around. America’s engagement, convening power, and sheltering of Iraqi financial assets still provide the foundation for the international legitimacy that the new government craves. And to complement these carrots, the Biden administration should remind Baghdad that it has an arsenal of sticks to punish continued corruption, money laundering, and human-rights abuses.

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