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Iraq’s Political Chaos Is a Win for Iran and Headache for the US

Comment

Iraq is facing summer of discontent after its most popular politician pulled his party out of parliament, having failed to form a government. But even as Baghdad braces for months of turmoil in the streets, the wider world should gird for the economic and security fallout.

The likeliest outcome of Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to withdraw from the political process is a return to the violent protests that racked the country in late 2019 and early 2020. If anything, the coming upheaval will be even more disruptive, since Sadr’s supporters — who pulled out of the previous protests — are better organized than the leaderless cohort at the core of those demonstrations.

They are angrier, too. Having won a plurality in the general election last fall, Sadr was frustrated in his efforts to cobble together a governing coalition. He and his supporters will feel that the political process failed them, leaving the public square as the only stage for a demonstration of strength.

Protest, often violent, is Sadr’s stock in trade. Hailing from a family of Shiite clerics who paid for their opposition to Saddam Hussein with their lives, he made his own name in 2003 by raising a militia, known as the Mahdi Army, against the U.S.-led coalition that toppled the dictator. Sadr’s fighters were trounced, but his anti-American rhetoric never waned. More recently, he has cast himself as a nationalist, opposed to the malign influence of Shiite-majority Iran in Iraqi affairs.

Although Sadr officially demobilized the Mahdi Army in 2008 after entering electoral politics, many of his supporters remain armed, organized and dangerous.  But the political groups that stymied him in parliament, including his Iran-backed Shiite rivals, have militias of their own. Shiites make up 60% of Iraq’s population and the weak central government under the caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will be loath to intervene in any internecine conflict.

These are grim tidings for Iraqis, who face the prospect of blood in their streets. But they also bode ill for the global economy: At a time of soaring oil prices, prolonged instability in OPEC’s second-largest producer is plainly the last thing anybody needs. (Remember that the market is already short of supply from another significant Arab producer wracked by political chaos: Libya.)

Buyers can only hope that Kadhimi will be able to secure Iraq’s oil infrastructure and keep supply lines open if sectarian infighting breaks out in the Shiite-dominated southern provinces, which account for the majority of the country’s reserves.

President Joe Biden’s administration faces double jeopardy. Any loss of Iraqi supply will obviously undermine efforts to cool the crude market — and reduce prices at the pump ahead if midterm elections in the fall. No less important, Sadr’s withdrawal strengthens Iran at a delicate geopolitical moment when the president is seeking simultaneously to negotiate a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic while reassuring its Arab neighbors that they have nothing to fear.

The political churn in Baghdad will, at least in the short run, yield butter for Tehran. By Iraqi law, the parliamentary seats abandoned by Sadr have gone to the candidates who polled the second-largest number of votes. In most cases, those were candidates from Iran-backed parties. That bloc, known as the Coordination Framework, is now in the strongest position to form a coalition government.

This would mean the return to the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, whose two previous terms in the job, from 2006-14 were characterized by an open license for Iran to deepen its influence in Iraqi affairs, especially in the country’s security forces. Tehran also backed a parallel network of Shiite militias, which it has used to attack U.S. military forces in Iraq and launch missile and drone strikes into Saudi Arabia.  

Kadhimi, who is regarded as a pro-Western figure, has had only limited success in curbing the militias; Maliki is unlikely even to try. Instead, he will use the state security forces to suppress any uprising by Sadr’s supporters.

It may be weeks, even months, before a new government is formed. The non-Shiite parties are no more enamored of the Coordination Framework than they were of the Sadr faction. But Iran is in no particular hurry. If, as now seems increasingly likely, the nuclear negotiations fail, Tehran will have free use of Iraq to stir up trouble for the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. And if intra-Shiite conflict interrupts Iraqi oil flows into the world market, that would suit Iran just fine, since a spike in prices would provide a welcome boost to its sanctions-restricted export revenue.

For the U.S., there are no good outcomes: Political chaos in Baghdad is as bad as an Iranian proxy government. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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