The third consecutive Dawa Party official in 11 years is about to become Iraq's premier, a triumph of diplomacy for Qassem Soleimani
Iran's man. (AFP Photo/Qassem Zeim)
Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi is the third successive Dawa Party official to become Iraq’s elected chief executive since 2003. Abadi is also Iran’s man, much more so than his predecessors Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki. His rise to power, together with the political arrangement reached by Washington and Tehran, gives Iran evermore control of its western neighbor. President Obama bizarrely claimed this as a success for his foreign policy.
Like Jaafari and Maliki, Abadi lived in political exile. The majority of Iraqis who escaped Saddam Hussein’s persecution and took refuge in Iran formed a negative view of the Iranian regime. While they thought the Islamic Republic would treat them like heroes, Iran humiliated them and treated them as protégés.
Because of the ideological differences over the role of the jurisprudent between Dawa’s founder Mohamad Baqer Al-Sadr, who believes it should be advisory, and Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini, who advocates giving the Supreme Leader unchecked power, Dawa members were often harassed in Iran. Jaafari moved to London. Maliki relocated to Syria.
Abadi, born to a Lebanese mother who lived in Najaf most of her life, left Baghdad for London. Perhaps because he did not spend time in Iran, he had a more idealistic view of the Islamic Republic. Those who know him speak of his admiration for Iran and the Persian language, and his antagonism toward everything not-Shiite.
When Dawa activists became Iraq’s rulers, they saw themselves as the counterparts of Iran’s leaders. But because Tehran’s ayatollahs see themselves as leaders of the entire Shiite world, including Iraq, they were adamant about transforming Iraq’s Shiites from equals into followers. This proved complicated.
Iraq replaced Iran as the world’s fourth largest oil producer. Baghdad’s annual budget was double that of Tehran’s, while the Iraqi population was one-third that of Iran’s. Iraq had America’s support and attention. Iran could barely talk to Washington.
Maliki saw an opportunity. Using his country’s vast resources and his autocratic instincts, he built a network of loyalists, undermined his domestic rivals, and neutralized regional powers.
Maliki pretended to be America’s man, visiting the White House and Arlington Cemetery, and convinced Washington that pumping more Iraqi oil was in its interests because it would help push Iranian oil – increasingly under sanctions – out of the world market.
Meanwhile, Maliki also courted the Iranians, supported their ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and ignored their abuse of Iraq’s banks to circumvent international sanctions.
Finally, the outgoing Iraqi prime minister also tried to lure Saudi Arabia. When he failed, Maliki used Iraq’s Sunnis as a springboard to rally more Shiites around him, accusing Saudi Arabia of sponsoring “the killing of Iraqi Shiites.”
So big did Maliki become that in 2010, senior Iranian leaders visited Baghdad to plead with him to join the all-Shiite ticket for parliament. He agreed with the condition that he would lead it, which Tehran refused. He eventually formed his own ticket and defeated Iran’s, an exercise he repeated in 2014.
The only thing that Maliki failed to do, domestically and regionally, was make friends and allies. He thought his network, which grew to 91 seats out of Iraq’s 325-seat parliament, would keep him in power. While impressive, his bloc was far from majority. Everybody else was against his autocracy, a sentiment that Tehran tapped into.
Outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Shahrastani and Abadi smelled blood. They knew that should Maliki fail, they – as his close lieutenants – could replace him. Maliki didn’t see it coming. He thought members of blocs like Abadi and Shahrastani could not possibly replace heads of their blocs like him. This was Maliki’s last constitutional stand before he bowed out.
Iran’s Qassem Soleimani outmaneuvered Maliki. In a meeting at Shahrastani’s house, Soleimani convinced Maliki’s most senior allies – Shahrastani, Vice President Khodeir Khuzaii, and Transportation Minister Hadi Al-Ameri – to endorse Abadi. They did.
To sell him to the Americans, Soleimani made Abadi promise Washington that as prime minister he would give up the power Maliki had concentrated in his office and that he would pay and arm Sunni tribes to take on the Islamic State (IS).
Finally, Abadi signed a pledge limiting his tenure to two four-year terms. The pledge he made, not to the people of Iraq, the parliament or the president, but to the National Alliance – the all-Shiite, pro-Iran parliamentary bloc – made the Shiite bloc and Iran the ultimate owners of the office of the chief executive in Iraq.
America signed on to all of this, counted replacing Maliki with Abadi a victory for its diplomacy, and lent the Sunni tribes and Kurds the US Air Force to take on the IS. Then Britain’s David Cameron said the West should cooperate with Iran to defeat the IS, even though the main elements are Sunni tribes, Kurds, the US Air Force and Western arms.
Iran got the West and Sunnis to fight its fight, and got the Iraqi prime minister it wanted. If this is a prelude to how nuclear negotiations with Tehran will go, the Iranians will be fools not to take the deal.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain