Zalmay Khalilzad, Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2018
As Iraqis go to the polls next month, the U.S. needs to counter Tehran’s effort at consolidating its power.
Iraq holds elections in May, and Iran is working hard to influence the outcome. Tehran seeks to consolidate its proxy militias that give it muscle within Iraq and, as with Lebanese Hezbollah, can be used across the region. Iran also wants to sustain sectarian, ethnic and political divisions to prevent Iraq’s re-emergence as a stable, independent power. Iran sees the U.S. as its key obstacle and is eager for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
Iran is in a strong position. Tehran-backed Shiite militias, created as an emergency measure to confront ISIS, have established themselves in Baghdad’s belt areas and in Sunni and some Kurdish regions. In the face of Washington’s passivity, Iran orchestrated a violent, punitive response by the Iraqi government and the pro-Iranian militias against the Kurds, using the 2017 independence referendum as a pretext. Then, when Kurdish appeals to the U.S. went unanswered, Iran began to present itself to the Kurds as their friend. Tehran offered to facilitate the Kurds’ negotiations with Baghdad to get some punitive measures lifted. The result: new Iranian importance and reduced American influence in the Kurdish region of Iraq, a former heartland of support for America.
It is not evident that Tehran has decided on its preferred candidate for Iraqi prime minister. Major constituencies, including the dominant Shiite Islamists, are divided. Iran’s apparent strategy is to support several groups in the hope that it will be kingmaker in the bargaining over the next Iraqi government.
Tehran at times appears to back Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and at times seems to be trying to undermine him. Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasim Sulaimani, encouraged Mr. Abadi and the pro-Iranian militias to form an election coalition. They did, costing the prime minister a good deal of support from independent Iraqis and others and undermining his aspiration to build a broad coalition transcending ethnic and sectarian identities. Soon after the damage had been done, the coalition abruptly ended. Nevertheless, Mr. Abadi’s group should do well because of his success against ISIS.
Now, instead of disarming, several of Iran’s militias want to convert battlefield success and de facto control of many areas into political gain and put their own men in the prime ministership and other key posts. One candidate is Hadi al-Amiri, an Iraqi who fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and who along with his Badr militia group has been in the pay of Iran for decades. Iran is also supporting the group led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who shares the goal of disrupting U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation. Tehran is the most opposed to the group led by Ayad Allawi, a secular former prime minister with strong ties to the Arab world.
To contain the regional danger posed by aggressive Iranian expansionism, as well as to protect its national interests, the U.S. should adopt a four-pronged approach to Iraq.
First, the U.S. should do what it can to encourage a level playing field in the Iraqi political process, support those who share its goals, and not continue to let Iran dominate the Iraqi parties. America’s record in this regard is not good. After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the U.S. spent billions a month on the military effort but neglected to help parties that wanted to be independent of Iran’s influence.
Second, the U.S. must learn the lesson of President Obama’s disastrous withdrawal and keep sufficient forces in Iraq to maintain substantial security cooperation. Such a presence provides America with leverage and credibility with Iraqis and regional players.
Third, whatever the results in May, the U.S. must remain engaged to foster a quick formation of a government, prevent Iran from distorting the outcome to its benefit, and support the political pacts on which the new government will be formed.
Fourth, enlist the support of regional allies and partners.
The U.S. must not repeat the mistake of disengagement that squandered the opportunity to consolidate Iraq’s democracy after the 2010 election and precipitated the disastrous setbacks of 2014.
Mr. Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, 2005-07.