When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presents his cabinet for a vote of confidence on December 25, it would have taken Iraqis nine months to form a government. Maliki will then focus on a US withdrawal, due by the end of 2011, leaving the sovereign cabinet with two years to govern, before elections, and probably another agonizing exercise of cabinet formation. Amid Iraq’s paralysis, only Iran stands to gain. And Like in Lebanon and Gaza, it is planting the seeds for long-term domination by grooming the Sadrists and being patient.
While many might argue that Iran’s major victory came in the shape of Maliki’s second term, the truth is that Tehran won because it decided that it was not in a hurry to dominate Iraq. That it will come in time.
Maliki has been everything but an Iranian stooge. Benefiting from state resources and America’s trust, he has been regionally independent. When Tehran invited him to join an all-Shia ticket under its auspices, Maliki turned down the offer and formed his own.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand never believed Maliki was a master of his own fate, and treated him as an enemy: Enter Ayad Allawi, whom with Saudi support, could become Maliki’s rival.
Not only did Riyadh believe that Maliki was weak, it miscalculated that Syria would be able to influence events in Iraq and knock the incumbent prime minister in favor of its man.
The Saudis were wrong on both counts. Maliki proved strong, defeating Iran’s allies in most Shia districts, winning the highest number of individual votes, and garnering 89 out of the 325 seats in parliament. Yet, Maliki’s success could not bring him a second term. He was 24 parliamentary seats away from forming a majority coalition. Allawi too stood 22 MPs away from majority.
Even after his electoral showdown with Iran’s allies, Saudi Arabia never trusted Maliki, and insisted that Allawi gets the call to form the cabinet. Maliki was not letting go either. The two arrived at a deadlock that neither could resolve.
But in Tehran, someone was taking note of Maliki’s power. Tehran correctly calculated that confronting Maliki was a losing battle. Therefore, Iran decided to befriend him. It instructed its ally, Moqtada Sadr, to lend Maliki his 40 MPs and enter the cabinet as a junior partner.
For their part, the Kurds preferred Maliki over Sunni-supported Allawi. After all, the Kurds are still locked in a war over oil and demographics with the Sunnis in Kirkuk and Mosul.
With the Sadrists and the Kurds, Maliki was ready to press the button and form a cabinet. But this time the United States held him back.
America realized that a thin coalition led by Maliki and based on Kurdish and Sadrist support would give Iran leverage. Despite their small bloc, the Sadrists could threaten a cabinet collapse at any moment.
Washington rightly calculated that if Allawi enters the coalition, Sadr’s power would be diluted. Over the span of few months, the United States tried hard to convince Allawi – and his Saudi patrons – to join a national-unity cabinet under Maliki.
Allawi repeatedly refused to join a government over which he did not preside, while Riyadh also seemed unwilling to budge. This forced America to shake up its assets inside Allawi’s bloc. Allawi caved, in return for a promise that a council, with executive powers, would be formed and Maliki was named for a second term on November 25. According to the constitution, Maliki has 30 days to form his cabinet. Allawi’s bloc will be represented, with or without Allawi.
In the 2010 elections, Maliki clearly won, first by defeating Iran’s allies, and secondly by outmaneuvering Allawi, thanks to a lending hand from Iran.
But Maliki’s power has peaked. His political movement has no structure. He has no successors. Whenever he loses elections, he will be out, and America will have to look for an independent replacement.
Iran has lost a battle, but not the war. By entering the Maliki cabinet, Tehran has planted the seed for a Sadrist movement that promises to prosper in the future. Like in Lebanon, it took decades before Hezbollah could control the country.
During the March elections, the Sadrist movement showed signs of organization superior to other Iraqi groups. Sadr is currently residing in Qom, probably to burnish his religious credentials. By the time he is done, Iraq will be ready to receive him as a leader with the legitimacy to lead the country.
Like in Lebanon and the rest of the region, Iran is in no hurry to spread its influence. If a couple of decades is what it takes for Iran to dominate Baghdad, then so be it.
Americans are going home soon. Iran, however, is not going anywhere. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, it misread the situation and bet on the wrong horse in Damascus.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai