The Iraqi Elections: Implications for Regional Politics

Muqtada al-Sadr

by Shireen T. Hunter 

The victory of the electoral list supported by Muqtada al-Sadr called Sairoon has led to speculation about the future orientation of Iraq in regard to its regional and international ties. The early verdict pronounced by Arab and Western commentators is that the Sadrists’ victory, in coalition with the Communists, represents a significant defeat for Iran and a victory for Saudi Arabia. They also imply that because of Sadr’s past anti-American tendencies, American influence in Iraq might also be undermined. According to this interpretation, the election results represent the rise of Iraq’s new post-2003 nationalism and the triumph of Arabism over sectarian loyalties.

However, a closer look at the election results and the distribution of votes and the parliamentary seats among various groups suggests a different interpretation. It shows that Iraq is still a politically divided country. Also, the dispersion of votes among several political groups makes the formation of a strong government problematic.

To begin with, Sadr’s group has only a narrow advantage over the runner-up, Hadi al-Amiri and his group Fatah. Sairoon only managed to capture 54 parliamentary seats compared to Fatah’s 47. If the Communists, Sadr’s coalition partner, got at least two seats, then Sadr’s majority dwindles to five seats. In addition, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition won 25 seats. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is reasonably well disposed towards Iran, got 19 parliamentary seats. Since these groups are generally pro-Iranian, then groups favoring Iran together obtained 91 seats, which is more than the seats obtained by the Sadrists. Haidar al-Abadi’s al-Nasr group meanwhile got 42 seats. In short, Sadr’s victory was far from sweeping.

Moreover, it does not seem that there were significant differences in the pattern of voting compared to the past elections, which still continues to be mainly along sectarian lines. What has changed is that Shia votes are now divided among different groups. Lest one forget, Sadr is the scion of a major Shia family whose members were decimated by Saddam Hussein. No matter how ambitious he is, how much he resents Iran, and how far he is willing to compromise, there are limits beyond which Sadr cannot go. It is hard to see Sadr totally trusting former Ba’athists or current Ba’ath sympathizers.

Other groups that must cooperate to form a governing coalition have widely different perspectives and backgrounds. It’s hard to imagine that they could put aside all their differences and personal ambitions and trust one another in a sudden burst of patriotism.

America Dominant and Iran Diminishing

The United States, regardless of who forms the next Iraqi government, remains the greatest influence on Iraq’s politics. The source of American influence is its military presence in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf region, plus its global economic and political clout. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are satellites that only reflect light from the American sun.

Recent Iraqi overtures to Saudi Arabia, including those by Muqtada al-Sadr, do not represent growing anti-Iran sentiment or a newfound love for the Wahhabi kingdom, although there is quite a bit of that. Rather, the overtures point to the shifting regional politics, especially the new hardline American policy towards Iran. Iran increasingly looks like a sinking ship, so the rats are leaving. Forgotten are the days of Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State when Iran came to the rescue. Gone are the days when Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al- Sadr sought refuge in Iran.

Furthermore, Iran does not have spare cash to spread around and will have even less in the future once new US sanctions begin to bite again. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other hand, still have more than enough to do so. But this is politics. According to the Iranian saying, politics has no father or mother, let alone first, second, or third cousins. And gratitude is only the expectation of future favors. Since Iran does not have much favors to give then it cannot expect gratitude.

Limits to Saudi Influence

From the beginning, Iran’s influence in Iraq has been exaggerated. Iran faced serious barriers in Iraq, including ethnic differences and a history of competition. It was also obvious from the beginning that once it recovered, Iraq would not tolerate Iranian overlordship. Even at its weakest moments and under the leadership of supposedly pro-Iran figures such as Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq did not stop competing with Iran, including within OPEC. Iraq even could be obstructive in many areas, including trade. If Iraq temporarily tilted towards Iran, it was because of Sunni Arab hostility towards the new political set up. Thus, Iraq is witnessing not the upsurge of anti-Iranianism or a newfound love for Saudi Arabia, but a reassertion of statehood.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia should not celebrate too soon. Sure, it has favors to give in the form of cash and investments. But it also has to deal with a very bitter legacy of anti-Shia activities. For example, Saudi Arabia had to shelve an earlier planned visit by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Iraq because of protests in the country and on social media. Moreover, if Iraq wants more independence, surely it wouldn’t trade reliance on Iran for dependence on Saudi Arabia. The only way this could happen would be if America brokered it.

Nevertheless, Iran needs to learn a tough lesson from its experience in Iraq. The Arab states, irrespective of sectarian affiliations, will never accept Iran as a legitimate part of the regional order. For them, Iran will always remain the hostile other. They will use Iran, as they have done for the past six decades, as a factor to influence intra-Arab politics and disputes, whip up pan-Arab passions, and win support for an Arab-Israeli entente. Iran also serves as a useful scapegoat for the Arab states’ own failures and problems. Iran must also realize that in the normal state of affairs, countries and governments pursue their own national interests and not idealistic goals. So naturally, Iraq will look after its own interests and, when necessary, will compete with Iran.

In short, regardless of what happens in Iraq, Iran must abandon its Arabian and Islamist dreams and base its security and other policies on hard-headed strategic, political, and economic calculations. It should strengthen itself economically and not waste its scant resources on unrealistic goals. Most important, it should remember that no matter what it does it should never expect any thanks from its neighbors. The best strategy for Iran is to develop relations with states located geographically further afield. Only when Iran is a strong and respected member of the international community will its neighbors treat it fairly.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Shireen Hunter refers to Iran, as if the Iranian nation is behind the Ayatollah activities. This is the wrong syntax to use. Don’t say Iran, when you should say Ayatollah regime.

    It is important to draw a clear line, not to confuse the Ayatollahs’ activities with those of the Iran nation.

    To confuse the 80 million Iranians, with the political ambitions of a bunch of madmen, is making the madmen far bigger threat than they are.

    So we have ask the question, what are writers like Shireen Hunter trying to make us believe? Why does she mix civilized peaceful Iranians with the inhuman Ayatollahs?

    Don’t say Iran, when you mean Ayatollahs.

  2. “politics has no father or mother, let alone first, second, or third cousins”. Exactly. That’s what you are saying. What Americans have been doing. Basically, you are telling Iran to do a Trump. Go after your interests, because “idealistic goals” won’t get you anywhere. However, I believe that it is in the national interests of Iran to continue following its ideals, if preventing ISIS from capturing Baghdad and Erbil and becoming their neighbor can be counted as following ideals. And not every person, is as ungrateful and double faced as Dear Donald Trump. People remember. Everyone shall see that gratitude, if and when Iran is attacked. Unlike some, Iran is not pursuing hegemony, and does not want vassals and puppets. A strong and independent Iraq is in the interests of every country in middle east, Excepting Israel of course.

  3. Shireen Hunter says ‘The best strategy for Iran is to develop relations with states located geographically further afield.’
    They already are, as the alliance with Russia and the Hezbollah in Lebanon show.
    I am sure they will also be happy to work with the Chinese and North Korea too in a joint project to develop Iranian nuclear capability and to develop an alternative to the US $.

  4. Iranians are the first people who migrated from many regions of Europe to the ME several thousand of years ago. Of course the second people were the European and Russian Jews who began migrating to the state of Israel since about 70 years ago. The local Nomads and desert dewellers have never and will never accept those who have migrated to the region because the migrants were non-Arabs. Hence the reason for the Arabs naming Iranians as “Adams” and the Jews as “Yehudis”. Of course if it wasn’t for the African Egyptians who developed the Arabic language the ME Arabs wouldn’t have existed today and they would’ve remained as nomads with no language or culture!
    The Arabs have invaded (attacked) Iran several times throughout the history and the last one was done by the Iraqi SOB (Saddam Hossein). The destruction that the Arabs have caused in Iran have been far more severe than those inflicted on Iran by the Mongolians!
    I agree with you Ms Hunter that the Iranians should try to establish positive and productive relationships not only with those as far away as practical from the ME and also with their migrant brothers and sisters in Israel since they do understand each other better and also they do empathize with one another. At the end the Arabs will be coming t kiss their a…s!

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