Iran’s Iraqi clients lost last year’s parliamentary elections, but have won the battle to control the new Iraqi government. On October 27, Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani of the Iran-backed Coordination Framework bloc received parliament’s approval for his new cabinet. It is an outcome very few would have predicted a year ago, when voters dealt a blow to the Iranian-aligned parties and militias that comprise Sudani’s parliamentary bloc. Those elections delivered a sweeping victory instead to the blocs that promised to implement reforms and resist Iranian influence over the Iraqi government. How did the Iranian-backed parties and militias that lost the elections reverse their fortunes and form a government on their own terms? The story shows how the Iranian regime and its Iraqi loyalists have entrenched themselves in the Iraqi political system—and also how the new government will bring even more instability and unrest to the country and the region.
In the aftermath of last year’s elections, the victorious bloc of Moqtada al-Sadr found itself with 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. By combining with Muhammad Halbousi’s Sunni bloc and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish bloc, the Sadrists seemed set to form a government with a comfortable parliamentary majority. This tripartite parliamentary majority alliance declared its intention to create a government that would implement reform and require the disarmament of the militias, the same measures Iraqi protestors had demanded from October 2019 onward. Although there were great suspicions about the corruption of Sadrist ministers in previous governments and wariness about Sadr’s emotional, superficial political decisions, it was clear that the success of this tripartite alliance in forming a new government would have been a serious threat to the militia-backed political structure the Iranian regime had created in Iraq.
Faced with such a serious threat, the Iranian-backed Coordination Framework responded by using Lebanese Hizballah’s old technique of playing the “blocking third” in the parliament, obstructing all attempts to take the first constitutional step of electing a president. The Coordination Framework was able to do so because they enjoyed the collusion of the Iraqi Federal Court, a body that has demonstrated it is under Iranian domination while delivering one dubious court ruling after another in the the Coordination Framework’s favor. The government formation process in Baghdad quickly came to look exactly like the process in Beirut, dominated by Iran in exactly the same way.
Frustrated for eight months by the Coordination Framework’s ability to nullify the election results and deny them the right to lead the formation of a government, the Sadrists took the extreme step in June of resigning from the parliament altogether. The Sadrists’ withdrawal indicated their grudging acceptance of letting the Coordination Framework take over the government formation process under the guidance of IRGC Quds Force commander General Ismail Qaani.
With the Sadrists out of the way, and the threat of a tripartite pro-reform government defeated, Tehran’s Iraqi allies are now in a position to take over all the arms of the new Iraqi government. Prime Minister Sudani owes his candidacy to the influence of his patron Nouri al-Maliki and the support of Iran’s militia allies. Under Sudani, the government formation process is set to destroy the Iraqi protestors’ dreams by handing over Iraq’s security and military affairs to Maliki, the militias, and the IRGC. Nothing can stop the new government from doing so, even if Sudani has to operate with several ministries vacant.
What does this situation portend? The new government will mean serious repercussions and insecurity across the country, because Iran’s destabilizing proxy spoilers are now in full control. The new government will be dominated by the Maliki faction, the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah, the same Tehran loyalists that Iraqis hold responsible for a murder campaign against the population and for the corrupt lack of services and infrastructure in the country. These are also the factions that Iraqis hold responsible for the escalation of armed attacks against Kurdistan, especially Erbil. Some of their attacks have employed missiles and drones launched from deep inside Iran using the fabricated pretext of an Israeli presence in Iraq.
As an Iranian-backed militant faction, the Coordination Framework and its militias have succeeded in seizing power. But as an actual functioning government, they are bound to fail. The same ineffective, corrupt personalities that failed in government before will be steering yet another fragile, Tehran-dominated government that lacks the ability and the intention to stabilize the country and satisfy the people’s demands. The dominance of the Iranian-backed spoilers over the new government will almost certainly lead to a rebellion and revolution of the Iraqis in general, one that will push Muqtada al-Sadr to act after his inaction enabled the Coordination Framework’s takeover.
This forthcoming unrest in Iraq will be a precious gift to the region’s worst terrorists. The situation will create security vacuums that will revive the life of ISIS. It will also serve the interests of the IRGC, which will take advantage of the unstable situation to continue to use Iraq as a base for its regional warfare against Saudi Arabia and others who are already threatened by the IRGC’s military domination of Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The IRGC already benefits from the diplomatic tension between Washington and Riyadh, and increased Iran-backed instability in Iraq will only deepen that tension as American and Saudi leaders see the situation in Iraq quite differently.
As for Iraq on the regional stage, with Iran’s allies in control of the government in Baghdad we can expect Iraq to become an asset for Tehran’s strategy of defeating the Abraham Accords, punishing America’s regional allies, and increasing the threat to Israel’s existence. The entire landscape in Iraq will be a situation that did not have to happen, and one that the protestors who succeeded in toppling a government in October 2019 had hoped to never see again.
There are many international messages of congratulation to Sudani today for forming a government, and a palpable sigh of relief from Washington and others who believed the year-long government vacuum was Iraq’s biggest problem. But they are likely to be disappointed soon. The formation of the new Coordination Framework government is not the end of Iraq’s instability, but the beginning of a new and worse phase of it.
Mithal al-Alusi is a former member of the Iraqi parliament.