The battle to determine the composition of the next Iraqi government has not yet been won, but Iran could secure a strategic victory in the face of lackluster engagement by the United States. Senior US foreign policy officials are distracted by the summit with North Korea, while those assigned to push back against Iranian influence are solely focused on re-imposing sanctions – failing to appreciate the significance of this potential turning point for Tehran’s regional influence.
The elections, which took place on May 12, distributed parliamentary seats across a highly fragmented set of political parties and groups. Iraqi politicians are now negotiating hard to try to build a viable coalition.
But the Iraqis are not engaging in this process alone. Foreign powers, particularly Iran and the United States, shape the process of coalition building that follows every election. These powers can bring disparate political parties together, can incentivize them to collaborate, and can act as a referee to ensure that pledges made in the coalition-forming process are honored.
To form a government, a coalition of at least 165 members of parliament must be created. Three moderate groups, Sairoon, Hikmah, and Wataniyya, have joined forces and though, collectively, they have 99 seats, they will struggle to reach 165 without US support.
Iran, meanwhile, is heavily engaged in efforts to broker an alternative governing coalition that could protect its extensive political, security and economic interests in Iraq. Tehran wants to ensure that the next Iraqi government continues the process of institutionalizing the Popular Mobilization Units, the Shia-dominated paramilitary groups who have links with Tehran.
It wants to prevent US and Coalition forces from establishing a permanent military presence in the country. It wants Iraq to tacitly support its regional goals, particularly its support of the Syrian regime and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it wants to ensure wide-ranging access to the Iraqi formal and informal economy.
The urgency of these long-standing Iranian goals has been heightened by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The impact of renewed sanctions makes Iranian access to Iraq’s foreign currency markets, its import markets, and its trade routes essential to countering coming economic strains.
The public humiliation implicit in President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the accord also strengthens Iran’s resolve to expand its regional influence at Washington’s expense.
The Trump administration has professed that pushing back against Iran’s regional ambitions is a key policy priority. The United States wants to see a new Iraqi government that either backs Washington, or at least stays neutral, in regional conflicts.
It wants to see a stable and unified Iraq in which the Iraqi government addresses Sunni and Kurdish grievances. And it wants to continue to strengthen the official Iraqi Security Forces to reduce the influence of the Popular Mobilization Units and to enhance the state’s ability to defend itself against a potential Islamic State resurgence. Despite these goals, the Trump administration is investing little to influence the coalition-building process. Officials have failed to understand that Iran could substantially expand its influence in Iraq by shaping Iraqi government formation, with far-reaching consequences for the balance of power between Iran and the United States in the Middle East.
At the working level, my recent visits to Iraq and Washington left me with the view that some are complacent that a new government will be favorable to the United States; others are deeply cynical about Washington’s ability to influence Iraqi politics.