The recent Wikileaks debacle, labeled “unhelpful and untimely” by Iraq’s Foreign Minister and a “semi-voyeuristic travesty” by me, does have its upsides. Among them is a lengthy, detailed look at U.S. perceptions of Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, in particular in the run up to last year’s elections. There’s been a lot of contradictory ink spilled on this subject, and the U.S. cable takes a cautious approach. Its conclusion for U.S. policy is that Iranian muscle flexing should not lead to “alarmist tendencies or reactions,” Iran’s influence over Iraq “should not be overestimated,” and there are real “points of divergence between Tehran and Baghdad.” How wide those points of divergence grow would seem to hinge on Nouri al-Maliki’s somewhat opaque vision for the future of Iraq, and the shifting alliances of his coalition.
There is no doubt that Iran has a lot of levers in Iraq. The cable hits some of the highlights. Iran gives $100-200 million a year to Iraqi surrogates, including to militant Shia proxies. It has close relationships with key Iraqi politicians including President Talibani and Prime Minister Maliki. It does $4 billion dollars in trade with Iraq, and provides 48% of Iraqi imports. It takes in Iraqi leaders in need of protection or an infusion of religious cred, including Moqtada al-Sadr, currently living and studying Qom.
However, the U.S. cable, written before the election, pointed to Iran’s fear of “a ‘rebellious’ Maliki pursuing a more nationalist [rather than] sectarian agenda” that would split the Shia vote. That didn’t quite happen. Maliki embraced unlikely partners like the Sadrists (against whom he’d waged vicious battles in the Spring of 2008) in his coalition. But the same analysis would seem to apply to the new post-election question: how will Maliki govern? As a Shia to be sure, but with U.S. influence in Iraq waning, will he govern as a sectarian or an Iraqi nationalist? In the short term, Iran’s influence over Iraq will depend largely on Iran’s influence over Maliki. And Maliki doesn’t appear to have any inherent interest in doing Iran’s will. As Larry Kaplow argues, "Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq's or his own interests."
Though Iran backed Maliki during the 8 month struggle to form a government, he was not at all their first choice Shia leader, as Iran preferred the Iraqi National Alliance coalition lead by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists. In fact, Maliki shrugged off Iranian pressure not to split from the main Shia coalition. In his previous term, he signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. despite intense Iranian lobbying. Not to overstate the case, but Maliki seems to do Iran’s bidding when it squares with his vision of Iraq and/or his own political interests. Alliances with Iran are more a matter of convenience than of enthusiasm for Tehran’s vision of Iraq or the middle east. He strikes me as much more a nationalist – an extremist perhaps, but an Iraqi nationalist – than Iran would like. And with a healthy interest in hanging onto power.
So the points of influence would seem to come from within the coalition, which gives Maliki his credibility and power. If the coalition’s support for Maliki wavers, then Maliki’s authority does as well. Iran might find ways to further cozy up to the Kurds, ever the pragmatists, who have some history of short term tactical cooperation with Tehran when it suits their needs. Iran has already formed a tidy alliance with the Sadrists who, though Shia fundamentalists, are ultimately Iraqi nationalists. These critical coalition partners – rather than Maliki or his inner circle itself – would seem to me to be the key battleground for influence over Iraqi politics in the short term.