It has now been almost twenty years since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq. More than 40 percent of Iraqis were born after the war. The majority of Iraqis have no direct memory of Saddam Hussein even though his legacy—and those of sanctions—continues to scar society.
Iraqi politics remain deeply dysfunctional, though, from the lens of democracy, that is still a step up from the many Arab states—Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and most Gulf states—whose systems by law or in reality prohibit meaningful political competition. To simplify Iraq into a cartoon of Iran-backed groups and non-Iran-backed groups is lazy and does a disservice.
Consider this Wall Street Journal piece by Washington-based writer David S. Cloud and Ghassan Adnan headlined, “Iraqi Parliament Elects Iran-Aligned Mohammed al-Sudani as Prime Minister.” An Iran narrative dominates the subsequent story, as the authors editorialize rather than report.
Two of the more egregious statements are:
– “Mr. Sudani and his cabinet were approved under tight security, breaking a yearlong impasse between a bloc of Iranian-backed factions that endorsed him and supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr …”
– “The 52-year-old Shiite former labor minister is the choice of Mr. Sadr’s Iran-backed rivals, the Coordination Framework, which controls the most seats in the Iraqi legislature. Mr. Sudani is close to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ties to Tehran when he was in office strengthened the power of Iranian-backed militias and intensified sectarian violence …”
Such a reading of Iraqi politics is simplistic, rooted more in 2005 than 2022. While the Badr Corps, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hezbollah are undoubtedly pro-Tehran, there is greater nuance in Iraqi debate. Many politicians, even those from the Coordination Framework, resent Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty. The actual debate in Baghdad is about when to co-opt and when to confront.
This was clear in any conversation with Mustafa Kadhimi who, until earlier this week, was Iraq’s prime minister. While diplomats and journalists described Kadhimi as close to the United States, he allowed Iranian influence to grow tremendously under his watch. When diplomats and others would confront him, he would deflect criticism by citing timing and fear of escalation. The Western-oriented former President Barham Salih, too, was part of the Coordination Framework coalition, although he lost his seat to Latif Rashid when the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan offered parliamentarians a choice of the two. The point is that Iraq is not Manichean and its politics multi-dimensional. Iraqis have agency and neither Washington nor Tehran can easily manipulate them.
Muqtada al-Sadr is likewise not cut-and-dry. Today, Sadr says he opposes Iran but, in the past, he embraced the Islamic Republic. His opposition to Tehran is based less on ideology than on power: He does not want to subordinate himself to the supreme leader; he wants to be the supreme leader. Perhaps Cloud believes outreach to Saudi Arabia proves a change in Sadr’s orientation. If that is the case, does Coordination Framework member Ammar al-Hakim’s three-hour meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman similarly cleanse him of any Iranian influence? Did Kadhimi’s meetings with Qods Force Chief Esmail Qaani make him an Iranian puppet? Reality is complex.
Cloud is right that Iranian-backed militias strengthened their grip under Maliki (as they did under Kadhimi). Frankly, Maliki should face the same sort of justice that Panamanian President Manuel Noriega did. Still, the Wall Street Journal’s synopsis of Iraqi politics is inaccurate. Cloud and Adnan omit that, at the time, Al Qaeda and other militant Sunni groups sponsored a bloody terrorist insurgency during the Maliki years. In Ramadi and Fallujah, protestors waved Al Qaeda flags. The downside of the Bush-era surge was it convinced many in Anbar that they need not compromise or accept the legitimacy of Shi’ite politicians. Simply put, sectarianism was not unidirectional.
The criticism of Prime Minister Mohammad Shi’a al-Sudani as a Maliki man is also silly. While Maliki gave Sudani his first break, Sudani ultimately split with his former mentor over Maliki’s corruption and pro-Iranian tilt more than a decade ago. If the U.S. Embassy or Wall Street Journal do not know Sudani well, that is not Sudani’s fault, but rather a reflection of the constraints the State Department puts on its diplomats preventing them to make the nightly rounds visiting politicians in their homes and build relationships over coffee, tea, or something stronger. Compounding the problem is that the White House and State Department tend to invest in individuals rather than a system. This persisted even after Kadhimi started playing them for fools.
Sudani has no love for Maliki. He knows the former prime minister would have preferred to return to the Republican Palace himself. He also knows he has little popular support and the Shi’ite spiritual leadership in Najaf signaled a Maliki comeback to be unacceptable. This does not mean Sudani will succeed where his predecessors failed. The Iraqi system is broken. The United States is increasingly detached from Iraq. The end of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” campaign re-resourced the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, by extension, the militias they sponsor. Russia, too, has pumped money into the militias as they enter into business relationships with them. Even if Sudani means well, the Barzanis, Talabanis, Malikis, and Halbousis of Iraq have an interest in maintaining the system.
Sudani, however, deserves a chance. Iran has less of a free rein than many Americans realize. This does not mean that the United States should turn a blind eye toward Iranian ambitions, but it should not exaggerate them or treat Iraqis as simplistic.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).