It’s time for some serious dialogue with Iran about Iraq. The chaos in Baghdad, culminating in the temporary occupation of the parliament by followers of Shiite Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is undermining the war against the Islamic State, weakening Iraq’s economy, and accelerating the country’s disintegration. Without cooperation between the United States, Iran and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, the crisis could very well lead to the collapse of the entire political system set up in Iraq during the temporary U.S. occupation. And that in turn could open the door to permanent occupation by the Islamic State and other violent anti-U.S. terrorist organizations.
To prevent this Washington needs Tehran’s help. And Iran should be as motivated to seek stability as much as Washington because currently it is losing favor in Iraq; the Shiite Islamist political parties that have dominated the government—with Iranian backing—have lost the confidence of most Iraqis. These groups had little support among Sunnis from the outset and now their standing has weakened among the Kurds and fellow Shiites also. For over nine months, young Iraqis have organized mass demonstrations, protesting the government’s economic mismanagement and its failure to provide security, governance and services. In their calls for reform, the protesters are demanding answers on where the country’s billions in oil revenues have gone.
Fearing that both secular groups might gain at their expense, intense rivalries have erupted among the entrenched Shiite Islamist parties. Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in the country—who had previously supported Haider al-Abadi’s appointment as prime minister—has publicly sided with the young protesters in their demand for reform. Sistani has echoed their calls for progress on combating corruption and improving services, and his withdrawal of support for Abadi has given Muqtada al-Sadr an opening to take up the mantle of reform. By attacking his Shiite rivals—notably Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader Ammar-al Hakim, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and militias such as the Badr Corps that back them—Sadr is seeking to wrest control of the reform movement from secularists.
Abadi gambled when he announced the appointment of a technocratic cabinet without the support of the political parties, even though a majority of parliament must endorse the appointees. Most of the other party leaders, with the notable exception of Sadr, rejected Abadi’s move. Hakim and Maliki saw an opportunity to get rid of Abadi while Sunnis and Kurds feared that a technocrat government would exclude them from the decision-making process.
When both Washington and Tehran made clear they wanted Abadi to stay, a compromise was floated by several political parties, the United States and Iran to retain Abadi as prime minister but to have the cabinet made up mostly of party affiliates. Sadr rejected the compromise and his supporters stormed the parliament—demanding the formation of a technocratic government.
If the crisis is not resolved, Sadr could declare a provisional government, which would have severe consequences, among them distracting Iraqi security forces away from the Islamic State and toward the power struggle in the capital, and accelerating Kurdish incentives to secure their interests independent of Baghdad. The Kurdish region could separate from Arab Iraq, either by pursuing a new confederal arrangement, or by declaring independence outright.
Another possible outcome is an army takeover in the midst of continued political deadlock or violence. The establishment of a military-led provisional government would have uncertain consequences, depending to a large extent, on how the militias and Ayatollah Sistani react. If the militias oppose an army takeover, the military government would need to brace for a two-front war—one with ISIL and one with the militias. It is unclear whether the military—riddled with mixed loyalties—could survive such a conflict. While many officers listen to former Prime Minister Maliki, many soldiers sympathize, or even identify with Sadr.
Although it is possible that a military takeover could facilitate a transitional government, followed by a new political road map, this is an unlikely scenario. A military government would not be able to secure the support of both Sistani and the militias. More likely, military involvement in domestic politics would impede the war against ISIL and fuel Kurdish separatism.
The best outcome is a negotiated compromise, backed by Sadr, which can restore order in Baghdad under a reform-minded coalition government. The new coalition government could announce a reasonable timeline for reform and even new legislative elections. This is an outcome that Ayatollah Sistani, the United States, and perhaps Iran, could support. Despite much speculation that Tehran relishes instability in Iraq—if only because it hardens America—there is as much reason to think that Iran has concluded that the alternatives to a negotiated deal would be negative for its interests. A government takeover by Sadr would severely weaken Iran’s closer allies in Iraq while a takeover by the military would increase Shiite infighting.
Such a deal would strengthen Sadr’s position without handing him a total victory. Abadi might survive as prime minister, providing a sense of both continuity and reform. A new coalition government might also preclude the separation of the Kurdish region from Iraq.
Two factors are necessary to broker such a compromise agreement. One is the endorsement of Sistani. Iranian policy goals are unclear given the involvement of various institutions such as the Quds force, but Sistani’s stance carries a great deal of weight with the Iranian leadership.
The second is, once again, dialogue and cooperation between the United States and Iran. Both Washington and Tehran should be interested in an immediate resolution to the political crisis in Baghdad and they will have to work in parallel for a quick compromise between the political parties and the prime minister. U.S.-Iranian cooperation would be furthered by a proactive American effort to consult Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who otherwise might be tempted to exacerbate the crisis in Iraq in an attempt to weaken Shiite power in the region.
It remains to be seen whether Ayatollah Sistani, the United States and Tehran can coordinate with each other and engage Iraqi leaders. But it is imperative to try.