ill-considered Iraqi election post

Predicting Iraqi election results is one thing this blog has been so awful at that it basically gave up. I will, however, venture a couple of comments on the results of Iraqi provincial elections. It seems more than clear that the current Iraqi government’s Dawa side gained over the ISCI (ex SCIRI) side, that the Sunni side was essentially deadlocked three ways, and the Sadrists held ground.

Anyone who tries to spin this as a victory over Iranian influence, however, is wrong. That Dawa did well, an Iranian-exile party whose PM Maliki is in constant contact with Iran, refutes this in itself. It certainly reduces the chances of southern separatism (Fadhila had a really bad day as well), but then, Iranian interests in Iraq are served just as well by a friendly Shia-dominated central government with weak sovereignty as by an ISCI-run Sumer down south – possibly better.

Carving out an Iranian proxy state would likely crank the civil war right back up, and would imperil the general balance of power. It would likely also need money, when Iran itself has serious financial problems. Having an established but weak government in Baghdad means that Iran gets what it wants – primacy of influence in the south – but without having to put too much in the way of resources into it or cause too much international trouble.

As it happens, the best analytical framework here is the history of Iran itself. Either the UK or Russia would have been in a position to carve out a client state in their zone under the Anglo-Russian Convention, but neither wanted either the expense or the trouble, even with the huge oil interest in the British zone. Instead, it was much more advantageous to play the game and prop up a centralised but ineffective sovereignty, whilst pursuing real interests like the oil through informal influence. The Iranian monarch was well aware of this, and played the game – perversely, the empires’ influence supported his authority up to a point. Much the same pattern applies to British policy towards the late Ottoman empire, and indeed to Qing China.

And you can bet that the relevant policy-makers are highly aware of the semi-colonial era. On both sides.

After all, the permanently operating factors are the same; Iraq and Iran are big and share a frontier, a majority of Iraqis share Iran’s majority religion, there are important economic ties, a history of competition for power, the Coalition main supply route and line of retreat runs across the Iranians’ strategic front, and Iraq is between Iran and its major power competitors in the GCC.

Therefore, a weakened Iraqi sovereignty means strong Iranian influence in Iraq – not least because a Shia government in Iraq whose international legitimacy is not totally certain will always look at Sunni Iraq and the other Arab states as potential enemies. In that sense, it’s no surprise that Iran would take an each-way bet on both Dawa and ISCI, giving themselves the choice between a friendly unitary Iraq and a half share of a partitioned Iraq. It’s a hedged position.


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