With Al-Kadhimi as the New PM, Will Iraq’s Elite Still Dance to Tehran’s Tune?

Anti-government protestors and Iraq’s complex web of parliamentary blocs categorically rejected the mandates of former Prime Ministers Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi to lead their country.

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For protestors, Allawi was not just another compromised politician, he was also a member of Iraq’s ruling elite—as such, his power base is contingent on interminable parliamentary compromise, venality-ridden policymaking, and absolute adherence to Iranian interests. Al-Zurfi on the other hand, could not win the support of the country’s all-important Shi’a bloc.

How then, will the Iraqi people receive Mustafa al-Kadhimi their third Prime Minister in four months?

Al-Kadhimi, who was appointed this week by President Salih, faces the initial challenge of resolving an escalating, sect-coded parliamentary dispute regarding a continuing Shia-led reorganization of Iraq’s electoral jurisdictions.

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While the legislation agreement awaits formal ratification, domestic and international electoral commentators have argued that the proposed jurisdiction adjustments will allow Iran-backed, Shia-majority parliamentary blocs to control upcoming elections against Sunni-majority or Kurdish-majority political parties.

Many Iraqis worry that any new PM would draft legislation that would favor one ethnic group over another. However, while past prime ministers were accused of sectarian favoritism, al-Kadhimi appears to be winning the support of almost all of Iraq’s diverse and complex ethnic communities.

In addition to formalizing the electoral underrepresentation of Sunni and Kurdish populations, the bill essentially made it impossible to legally reshape or reform the Iraqi political system; a system that has been infected with rampant corruption, brazen sectarianism, and zealous fidelity to Iran. Yet al-Kadhimi seems to overcome this threat to national cohesion by retaining the ethnic sectarian quotas establish in the post-Saddam transitional government.

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Iran’s Influence

As broad and as deep as al-Kadhimi’s support may be, he must allay the fears of Iraqi protestors who, since October 2019, have accused the ruling elite of a litany of offenses, from taking bribes to failing to provide basic infrastructure or public services. However, frequent grievance voiced by protestors continues to be the penetration of Iranian influence across every strata of Iraqi life and the human rights abuses that Tehran inflicts upon Iraqis. This will prove to be al-Kadhimi’s most testing challenge.

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In addition to flagrantly violating Iraqi sovereignty, Iranian influence has also hamstrung Iraq’s bureaucratic institutions and tools of governance. Since 2003, Iran has been carefully furthering its own regional ambitions by exploiting and perpetuating Iraq’s sectarian divides. Besides crippling Iraq’s Ministry of Finance, Iran’s endemic political influence has also precluded desperately needed foreign investment and capacity building assistance from the wealthy Gulf and Western nations.

In the last three years, Iran’s protracted foreign interference campaign has stepped things up a notch, from stoking bureaucratic inefficiencies and bribing or coercing provincial governors all the way to bankrolling the creation of quasi-paramilitary, Shia-majority political organizations. By cultivating a political stronghold in Baghdad, Iran aims to reinforce key nodes in the Shia Crescent and entrench Iraq as a militarily feeble client state.

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By most metrics, this goal has been a tremendous success for Tehran—Iraq remains deeply unstable and the country’s political class has devoted far more energy towards lining their own pockets and realizing Iranian interests than they ever have towards creating jobs, building infrastructure, or easing poverty.

Can al-Kadhimi Solve Iraq’s Problems?

Having spent many years in the United States, PM al-Kadhimi is in a unique position of maintaining close contact with Washington and was a supporter of the US-led invasion. However, his support from Tehran is worrying.

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For years, Iran has orchestrated a game of parliamentary musical chairs in Baghdad with former PM Allawi continuing, as protestors reported, practices of corruption and caving to Iranian pressure. While many hoped al-Zurfi could adequately reject Iran, he remained to unpopular.

The difference this time is that pro-sovereignty protestors will not accept the appointment of another career politician with Iranian sympathies. After years of broken promises to reform the political system, Iraq’s protestors are demanding nothing short of political revolution and regime change. Given the resilience and scale of demonstrations, the protest movement, which has already toppled one government, may soon have the strength to help build another.

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Iraq’s pro-sovereignty protest movements, once a decentralized organization lacking political structure, is beginning to take on a unified appearance through the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq. This umbrella organization pays homage to protesters’ demands and their grassroots, youth-driven makeup – it is breathing new life into the broader pro-sovereignty initiative across Iraq.

With support for the movement blossoming across the country, an increasing number of non-sectarian political organizations — including powerful parties like the National Wisdom Movement and the National Independent Iraqi front   — are beginning to pivot towards the popular banner of anti-Iran, pro-Iraqi sovereignty.

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A secular Iraqi nationalist with support across the sectarian divide, al-Kadhimi may be just what this movement needs.

As protest momentum continues to build, this patchwork coalition of allies has a real shot at restoring Iraqi sovereignty. In addition to being deeply symbolic, attaining long-term sovereignty is also the key to achieving stability, promoting foreign investment, and facilitating progress in Iraq. If al-Kadhimi can properly repel foreign influence and capitalize on his rare and newfound support, the Iraqi people may finally have a chance to break free of sectarian conflict, rampant corruption, and poverty.

Joyce Toledano is an analyst and journalist specializing in the Middle East and Asia. He is also a contributor to Japan Today and The News Lens.