Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(votes: 4, rating: 5)
 (4 votes)
Share this article
Ruslan Mamedov

MSc in International Relations, Program Manager (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Council

Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.

Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.

The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.


Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 allowed the American side to exert multifactor influence on the formation of a new elite. Even the technical implementation of the voting process, not to mention the principles of the new Constitution, were dependent on the United States. But the United States had directed the political process in Iraq even before the country adopted its new Constitution in 2005 by creating two key bodies: the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). On June 9, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1546 that endorsed “a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq” and a “timetable for Iraq’s political transition to democratic government.” [1]

The 2005 election urged forward by the United States established a new political elite that received international recognition but limited legitimacy at home. Since the election was held in a very difficult environment and was boycotted by a large share of the Sunni population, just how representative it exactly was has been called into question.

Following its own logic in relations with Iraq and being embedded in the regional context, Iran decided to use the levers already at its disposal to influence the Iraqi political process and shape a favourable political elite in the country. In fact, this process began long before the U.S. invasion, because movements opposing Saddam Hussein had already been formed and their leaders often lived in Iran. Despite the fact that most religious and political movements in Iraq can trace their origins back to the 1950s or 1960s, as the Islamic Dawa Party, which has become the most formidable opponent of the Iraqi authorities, actually developed during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. The leaders of Dawa, who were in exile, mostly lived in Iran.

Starting in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the exiled opposition was increasingly influenced and dominated by Kurdish ethnocentric and Shia faith-based political forces. Opposition figures that aspired to keep the vision of Iraqi nationalism homogenous and centralized increasingly gave way to political forces driven by an ethnoreligious agenda [2]. Depending on the political situation, Iran continued to lend limited support to various Kurdish forces opposing the central authorities in Iraq.

After 2003, Shia political forces sought to form coalitions, a key example of which was the alliance between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in 1982 and had engaged in close cooperation with the United States even before 2003. The key constituency for SCIRI was Iraqis of Iranian origin and the Marsh Arabs that migrated to Iran at times of crisis. Baghdad has always seen these population groups as untrustworthy [3]. SCIRI was headed by representatives of the country’s religious elite – the well-known Hakim family of Shia religious scholars. Support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani consolidated the position of Dawa and SCIRI in post-Saddam Iraq.

After the United States occupied Iraq, the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the influential Sadr family called his supporters to take up arms against the occupants. His followers formed the Mahdi Army that killed hundreds of American soldiers. The Sadrist Movement attained considerable influence in parliament and represented Shia communities from south and central Iraq, the Marsh Arabs and the Baghdad district of Sadr City (named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who opposed the regime and suffered at its hands) [4]. The Sadrists’ military wing retained considerable influence over the state security system.

Despite having some political clout and a few ministerial posts, the Sunnis found themselves marginalized in the new situation and did not have influence over the decision-making process in Baghdad as the case for, for example, the Nujaifi clan from Mosul. The main forces opposing the United States and the central government in Baghdad were the Naqshbandi Army (which had ties to the former Ba’ath Party) and Al Qaeda in Iraq [5]. Attempts to inject Sunni groups (the Sahwa or the Al-Iraqiya movements, which also included Sunnis) into the political elite were generally unsuccessful.

The ongoing marginalization of the Sunni population by the Nouri al-Maliki government and the radicalization of society, compounded by falling oil prices and the war in Syria, led to the establishment of an alliance of various groups in 2014. That alliance became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). The new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed the post in 2014 and represented the Dawa Party, decided not only to fight ISIS, but also to carry out some reforms. His efforts were greatly facilitated by the positions of Tehran and Washington, which have tacitly supported Abadi’s initiatives to form a technocratic government to fight corruption since 2016.

By jeopardizing the patron-client relationship and the distribution of wealth enjoyed by the old Iraqi establishment, al-Abadi fell into disfavour with many, including members of his former party Dawa. As a result, many wanted to oust him from the post of Prime Minister. But Iran and the United States put pressure on their partners within Iraq to prevent that from happening. This led to a reconfiguration of political forces in 2018 that nevertheless preserved the same elite.

The training of new security forces in Iraq by American experts, including in U.S. training camps effectively amounted to training various militias or groups linked with militants from the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. For them, collaboration with the United States was a matter of pragmatism, since everyone realized that Washington would play a defining role in the future federative Iraq. At the same time, the Shiites, who had become the dominant group in Iraq, were looking to the Iranian model of governance.

The formation of the new political elite in Iraq and the country’s security forces was thus directly dependent on the presence of U.S. occupation forces, the policies of Iran and Iran’s ties with movements opposing Saddam Hussein. The dominant Shia political groups proved to be very diverse and heterogenous, with different political interests and a strong radical influence.

The 2018 Election Results in Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Trace

Stopping ISIS was the main objective for the Iraqi Army. But achieving a national conciliation between the political forces proved to be a key condition for the country where Sunni interests were deeply embedded in the power structure. The “Kurdish issue” also popped up on the agenda. The independence referendum held by the Kurds in territories controlled by Erbil in September 2017 put Baghdad and Prime Minister al-Abadi personally in an awkward position before the 2018 election and lent strength to their political opponents.

Similar to the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran sided with the central government. This led Baghdad to carry out a military operation to restore sovereignty and even regain control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. This loss for Kurds – meaning a failure of the referendum – revealed a rift between the two major forces of Iraqi Kurdistan: the Barzani and Talabani clans (the latter was experiencing division itself after the death of former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani). However, this heralded a new stage in the consolidation of power of the central government and even a rise in nationalist sentiment.

A critical event that happened even before the 2018 election was the split within the State of Law Coalition and the Dawa Party, which had been in power since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Most of the seats in parliament were won by the Saairun coalition (also known as Marching Towards Reform), giving it the upper hand in forming the government. The coalition was headed by the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an extremely influential religious figure. However, this did not prevent his movement from using a nationalist and anti-corruption agenda as a platform. However, the Fatah Alliance (sometimes translated as the Conquest Alliance), a coalition that had been accused of ties with Iran on numerous occasions, finished a close second to the Sadrists, winning almost as many seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance is believed to have been supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. However, none of the abovementioned parties won a majority in parliament. It was clear that even the most prominent players would have to negotiate a compromise with each other, as well as with less influential forces.

It was more than three months before the new parliament met in early September 2018. The political process stalled as thousands of people took to the streets for rallies and demonstrations, with the biggest protests taking place in Basra. The political forces eventually had to find common ground and start forming a government. Again, it was the intervention of Marja Ali al-Sistani that became the catalyst for agreement.

The first step that signalled the redistribution of power was the election of Chairman of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq. On September 15, 2018, the 37-year-old member of parliament from the province of Anbar and member of the Al-Hal (“Solution”) party Mohamed al-Halbousi was elected by a majority (with 167 votes) as the Speaker of the national parliament. Hassan Karim from Saairun took the post of First Deputy Speaker. He garnered an even larger majority than the speaker, receiving 210 votes. On the whole, al-Halbousi can be considered a compromise figure both for Iran and the United States. His first visit, however, was to Kuwait, which hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq early that year. This suggests that the new speaker is counting on the support of the Gulf monarchies and intends to focus on reconstructing the country after the war.

The next step was the election of the president and prime minister. The presidential post had been traditionally held by a representative of one of the largest Kurdish political forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite the presence of several other candidates on the list, the most likely was former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, considered to be pro-American. Salih was not running as a single candidate for Kurds, as had been the practice since 2003. The very return of Salih to the PUK (he had quit the Union just before the election to form his own party) and the support he received as a presidential candidate were predictable.

But the Iraq Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for president, which, again, exposed a division among the elites. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani clan, Erbil) nominated Fuad Hussein, the former President of Kurdistan Region. Evidently, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah reached a last-minute agreement on the distribution of power at the federal and regional levels. Barham Salih ultimately became President, and Fuad Hussein became Minister of Finance.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet are a key junction in the power architecture of Iraq, and it was this point that became the focus of struggle. All parties had to trade concessions and search for compromise. A way out of the deadlock was ultimately found, and the solution was not in favour of Prime Minister al-Abadi. Several days before the election it was clear that the pendulum had swung in favour of former Minister of Oil and Vice President of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

The country continued to be run based on the quota principle of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, with a member of the Kurdish community as president, a Sunnite as a parliament speaker and a Shiite as prime minister. In reality, the system that had been established remains essential for Iraq. External forces, both in Iran and the United States, continue to work with Shiite political and military groups. They remain an organized force and are viewed as the basis for security and statehood, just as they were before the 2018 elections.

U.S.–Iran Relations under Donald Trump and Challenges for Iraq’s Political Elite

Iraq has traditionally been influenced by the dynamics of U.S.–Iran relations. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 reduced friction between the United States and Iran, strengthened pragmatic groups within the Islamic Republic, and created relatively favourable conditions for stabilization both in the region and in the Iraqi domestic political process. By the end of 2017, Baghdad had regained control of key cities and settlements largely thanks to the efforts of the al-Abadi government to coordinate the assistance of the two opponents and most important players in the region (the United States and Iran) in the fight against ISIS. However, with the defeat of ISIS and the removal of the topic from the global agenda, the United States and Iran no longer had any grounds for further “silent” engagement, so it ceased.

A new round of confrontation began following the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 and the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, which put Iraq in an uncomfortable position. The U.S. sanctions against Iran that followed Trump’s decision caused serious damage to the country’s economy and endangered any agreements between Tehran and third countries due to the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions. For example, under the threat of sanctions, the French concern Total withdrew from the largest project to develop the South Pars oil and gas field by selling its stake to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Large-scale U.S. sanctions against Iran could cause serious damage to Iraq due to the interdependence of the economies of these neighbouring countries. Iraqi representatives have held regular meetings with members of the U.S. administration, stressing the need for the country to cooperate with Iran. Baghdad has been able to secure several deferrals, and Washington has exempted Iraq from the sanctions regime (for 90 days each time).

Iran continues to be a vital source of electricity for Iraq. However, even though there is a need to replace Iranian oil on the world market – and Washington is working on this task – there is an increasing role for Iraqi oil in it. If the American side decides to stick to its policies, then it can also impose sanctions against Iraq, which will lead to increased risks and instability.

Constant pressure on Tehran did not lead to a revision of the “Iran deal,” which is what President Trump initially wanted. In such circumstances, Iran could have set about escalating regional affairs. In this case, it had the tools to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and, of course, in Iraq. For a long time, Major General and Commander of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran, Qasem Soleimani, was considered the key coordinator of Iranian actions in Iraq. He is credited with many of the achievements of Iranian politics in Iraq, including the agreement on the results of the elections and nullifying the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

Iran demonstrated particular care and accuracy in establishing its influence on the Iraqi political process after the Iraqi elections in 2018. During their visits to Iraq in 2019, both Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani held meetings with almost all political leaders and public figures over the course of several days. Unlike the Iranian side, U.S. representatives usually arrived with unplanned visits. On one such occasion, Donald Trump personally flew to Iraq to visit an American base, where he met with soldiers. The trip did not include meetings with any leaders of the variegated Iraqi political spectrum.

Iraq’s foreign policy as a whole became more balanced after the formation of the new government, where Mohamed Ali Alhakim stood at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq prefers to have several points of reference to help it pursue its course. For example, while visiting Moscow, Alhakim outlined Iraq’s principled position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, a policy which runs counter to the U.S. agenda in the region. At the same time, Baghdad has its own interests, namely, to ensure security on the Syria–Iraq border. In addition to cooperating with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq interacts with Iran, Russia and Syria within the framework of the Baghdad information and coordination centre. At the regional level, Iraq seeks to become a platform for dialogue between various regional and global actors [7].

Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.

It became increasingly clear that the elements of Iraqi politics that had become traditional since 2003 had been preserved. The political forces that had established themselves at that time and the external players supporting them – the United States and Iran – continue to perpetuate this system. At the same time, there are calls within the country to eliminate the influence of external players in determining the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. This, of course, creates opportunities for other countries to pursue their interests, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Russia, but also makes them adjust their policies regarding the United States and Iran, which have a traditional presence in Iraq.

The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.

1. Sapronova М. А. The Constitution of Iraq in the Past and in the Present. Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2005, p. 84.

2. Hashemi N., Postel D. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 117.

3. Minyazhetdinov I. K. The Balkanization of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and the Spread of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Sapronova M.A. Op. Cit, p. 88.


Rate this article
(votes: 4, rating: 5)
 (4 votes)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
For business
For researchers
For students