A victory for Iran?

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A leading hard-line Iranian newspaper close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad summed up the elections in Iraq even before they were held on March 7 as "a proxy war between the United States and the Islamic regime in which the Great Satan has no chance to win". "Following their great Ulama and religious leaders," the paper predicted, "the patriotic people of Iraq, Shi’ites and Sunnis as well as Kurds, will say no to the US and its allies in Iraq and the region". Three days after the elections, Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, used more or less the same vocabulary in responding to questions on the Iraqi general elections during a press interview. Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki was even more precise on the subject. Questioned about charges of Iranian interference in the Iraqi elections, the minister replied, "Why should we interfere when we are certain of victory?"

It is not difficult to understand why Iran is so confident of victory in these Iraqi elections. From its perspective, the elections represented a powerful political struggle between pro- and anti-American forces in Iraq. Of course Tehran is profoundly aware of the problematic and deep- rooted sectarian nature of Iraqi society and the significant influence of the sectarian factor on most Iraqi electorates. Nevertheless, the "American factor" holds the highest priority for the Islamic regime as far as the ultimate political destiny of Iraq is concerned. The fact that US forces are scheduled to leave the country beginning next August makes this election all the more important from the Iranian perspective.

The sectarian nature of Iraqi society is a powerful instrument for the Islamic regime to pursue its sociopolitical objectives in Iraq. But Iran is not the only state in the region that manipulates the sectarian factor to shape its interests there. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and even the US exploit sectarianism for their political ends. Saudi support for the Sunni alliance- -the Iraqia coalition headed by the pro-American secular Shi’ite leader Iyad Allawi–is more than apparent. Similarly, Iranian support for Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric who led the Shi’ite insurgency against the American occupation in 2005, demonstrates yet another example of the sectarian divide.

The case of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, presumably the most likely candidate to form the post-election government, demonstrates both the delicate balance of power and the room for manipulation that enable neighboring powers to pursue their interests in Iraq. Since 2006, when Maliki replaced Ibrahim Jafari, he has tried to maintain a delicate balance between domestic anti-American forces and the Islamic regime on the one hand, and the more secular and Sunni forces and neighboring Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia on the other. The Islamic regime’s support for the Maliki government was based upon two implicit conditions: his cooperation with the Americans and his toleration for Moktada al-Sadr and his radical movement.

Tehran’s long-term policy appears to have paid off in these elections. With 80 percent of the votes counted, the radical Sadr group, by winning nearly 40 seats, has emerged as the single most powerful Shi’ite bloc in the future parliament. In the past, Moktada al-Sadr had refused to enter the political process, preferring instead to support an all-out jihad against the American occupation. Ironically, under pressure from Iran, the movement laid down its weapons and eventually embraced the political process, while remaining steadfast in its anti-American stand.

Given that no single coalition has gained enough seats to form a viable government, Maliki has to enter a partnership. One possible scenario, which would obviously be welcomed by Iran, is an alliance with Sadr’s group. But the latter would demand a price for its support: closer ties with Tehran and a shift away from the US. This strategy, while congenial to Iranian leaders, would be strongly opposed by the Allawi-led Sunni alliance in the parliament, the more moderate Shi’ites, the Arab world and last, but by no means least, the US. On the other hand, a coalition of more moderate Shi’ites, secular forces and Sunnis would naturally be opposed by the radical Shi’ites and Tehran.

Given the impending US departure, the radicals and Iranian leaders are in no hurry to challenge the new post-election Iraqi government. The election has undoubtedly widened bitter sectarian wounds and religious divisions in Iraqi society. In the short term, anti-western forces both inside and outside Iraq can smile. But in the long term the democratic path, which ultimately emerged as the implicit winner of the country’s election, will heal both religious and sectarian divides–in much the same way it has healed these wounds in other societies.

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