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Round 3: Iran and the U.S. Spar Over Iraq

In Round 1, the Iranian government gained a foothold in Iraqi politics, employing its shared Shia connections to push for a de facto greater Iran. Round 2 saw the U.S. countermove with the surge, a policy whose success was augmented by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s willingness to fight the Iranian-backed Sadrist resistance in Najaf. The “recent” impasse over the Iraqi elections has provided the setting for Round 3.

What makes Round 3 so odd is that there is no material dispute over who should be leader of Iraq: both sides want Maliki to retain power. The real dispute between American and Iranian leaders is who surrounds him. While the American government has conceeded that Sadr’s political organization will be essential as a kingmaker for Iaqi stability, the U.S. still hopes to surround this with a potent mixture of all of Iraq’s major ethnic groups. Iran, by contrast, wants a robust Sadr movement with backing by religious Shiite parties (and token Sunni support).

At the risk of sounding dull, it looks like Maliki will form a compromise. Allawi and Iraqiya must play some role in government, primarily the Presidency. Additionally, Sadr’s movement must be placated beyond mere recognition. No government happens without these two conditions being met. The fact that both American and Iranian leaders prefer Maliki is a testament to both the necessity  and his skill; no major power will feel comfortable with any other man at the helm. For him to be the consensus choice of two contentious powers shows he has given each enough of what they want. (Although in the case of Iran, all that government requires is him to be a non-secular Shia, which he is).

In this context, Maliki is the real winner and one of the most stable leaders in the Middle East. While the American polity and the policymakers will be concerned (rightfully) about his meeting with Iran, specifically Ayatollah Khamenei, Maliki is having lower profile meetings with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. In short, he is doing what he needs to do: assert Iraq’s international role. He has already achieved Iraqi stability by being the only man for the job. Now he must parlay that into an Iraqi identity (preferably a moderate pro-American one), in order to be a legendary leader.


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