The Iraqi parliamentary elections held on October 10, 2021 have apparently not produced results convenient for Iran and have also sent the message that anti-Iran sentiment in Iraq is increasingly a factor on the political scene. Numerous Iranian analysts think that the Gulf states have gained new ground in Iraq at Iran’s expense, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Although Tehran’s allies have not left the political scene, the deterioration of their political influence – with its direct repercussions on their influence, as well as their poor chance of forming the three new authorities of the incoming government – means that Iran faces greater challenges in Iraq. Nevertheless, it still maintains an influence that cannot be ignored.
For the following reasons, the Iraqi parliamentary elections have gained importance and a special momentum vis-à-vis Iran.
1. Elections held at a time when Iran is facing increasing challenges in Iraq: While true that Iran’s allies continue to represent a significant presence on the political scene in Iraq, it is also correct that the anti-Tehran current in Baghdad started to increase and gain new ground following the October 2019 protests in Iraq. This began to become clear in the division of the Shiite militias into the so-called "Holy Shrine Units," referring to the militias closely aligned with the Supreme Marja’ Ali Sistani, and the "Wala’i Units," referring to the militias loyal to Iran.
2. Elections held in parallel with the approaching date of the seventh round of the Vienna negotiations: These talks will be held between Iran and the 4+1 group, with the indirect participation of the US. Iran’s expansion in the region was one of the lines of interplay between Iran and those powers after the latter called for expanding the scope of the negotiations to include this issue, which Tehran rejected. This may be a motivation for Iran to work to ensure that its allies’ hold over power is once again consolidated and to weaken the ability of its opponents to occupy an important position in Iraq during the next phase.
3. Elections parallel the escalating regional crises facing Iran: Relations with Azerbaijan remain tense, given Iran’s ongoing accusations that Azerbaijan is allowing Israel to encroach on Iran’s borders as well as exchange military exercises at those borders. Likewise, Tehran appears increasingly concerned over changing Turkish and Russian calculations, both in the Syrian crisis and vis-à-vis the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Add to this Iran’s ongoing indirect confrontations with Israel, which has succeeded in carrying out various security operations inside Iran in the past, targeting nuclear facilities, such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, and nuclear scientists like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research.
It can be said that the results of the elections and their level of participation have numerous implications that are attracting Iran’s particular attention, most notably the following.
1. Message of declining popular participation: According to estimates from the High Electoral Commission, the rate of popular participation was a low 41%, at a time when state institutions were depending on a high turnout to affirm the success of the current electoral process.
This declining rate of participation may be explained in light of three key considerations. First, a wide segment of voters fears that polling places are vulnerable to terrorist attacks by ISIS, particularly given the successive threats from ISIS in this regard. Second, there is concern of exposure to COVID-19 despite the preventive measures announced by the government. Third, and perhaps most important, is the growing frustration among large sectors of the Iraqi public with developments on the political scene. The voters who participated in the October 2019 protests see that most of their demands have not been met, that the political dynamic has not changed, and that the elections will result in the same political balances, albeit with limited changes.
Without a doubt, this is subject to evaluation and follow-up by Iran given that some of the messages of the popular movement were directed primarily to Iran and its loyal forces. This trend will continue and may escalate during the next stage, especially with the expectation that these forces will continue to influence the political scene. Perhaps the victory of the forces affiliated with the Tishreen Movement, which represents the protesters with 20 seats, would be an additional anti-Iran message in this regard.
2. Increasing presence of the Sadrists: The Sadrists succeeded in winning first place in the elections, with its Sa’iroun coalition obtaining 73 seats out of a total of 329—19 seats more than the total number of seats it held in the outgoing parliament. In this case, strengthening the position of the Sadrist movement within the map of Iraqi political balances may not be compatible with Iran’s interests and calculations during the next stage.
Although al-Sadr is not a political opponent of Iran in Iraq, at the same time he is eager to keep his distance from the political forces loyal to Iran, as evidenced by the tension that prevails in his relationships with some of these forces. Furthermore, he has adopted the call of "Iraq for Iraqis," which opposes Iranian influence in the first instance. Al-Sadr has also shown a clear openness in the past to the Arab states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, a trend that Tehran may not support.
3. Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s chances of survival: The election results support the possible continuation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi in his position for a new term. While he was not a candidate in the elections and has no electoral bloc supporting him, the compromises he reached before the last elections—especially with the Sadrists—may enhance his chances of keeping his position. This is another possibility that does not align with Tehran’s calculations, as it was looking to appoint a figure affiliated with forces loyal to Iran, specifically from the Fatah Alliance, to take over as prime minister, especially in light of Tehran’s clear differences of opinion with al-Kadhimi, who had previously adopted a call to end regional conflicts on Iraqi soil. He also sought to disarm the militias loyal to Iran and expanded the scope of cooperation with key Arab countries, especially the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan.
4. Declining influence and impact of the Quds Force: The results of the election suggest that the Quds Force, which is responsible for foreign operations and coordination between political forces and sectarian militias in Iraq, has not succeeded in strengthening opportunities for Iran’s proxies to entrench their influence on the Iraqi political scene. This may contribute to weakening the position of its leader, Esmail Qaani, who had made several visits to Iraq to lower the intensity of differences between the proxies and promote their chance of achieving outstanding results in the parliamentary elections.
Here, this means that the Quds Force may be inclined to once again rearrange its calculations in Iraq, after the proxies achieved poor results. The Fatah Alliance won 14 seats, while the State of Law Coalition, under the leadership of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, won 37 seats.
5. Al-Halbousi and Barzani still on the scene: Perhaps the most important outcome of the elections is the formation of a new political alliance between the Sadrists, the Sunni Progress Party (Takadum) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. In this context, it is relevant that the Sunni Progress Party, which won 38 seats, is led by the speaker of parliament in its last session, Mohammed al-Halbousi, whom the pro-Iran media refers to as the UAE’s man in Iraq.
In addition, the convergence of positions among the three transnational and cross-sectarian currents may allow them to reach a quorum (165 seats) in the House of Representatives that would enable them to form a government, perhaps in alliance with some other forces that are far apart from them politically.
Therefore, al-Halbousi’s chances of retaining his position may increase, and Masoud Barzani’s chances of being chosen as President of the Republic will also increase, which means a defeat of Iran’s ability to formulate the upcoming political arrangements.
In conclusion, Iran will not have an easy time with these results. It will seek to send direct messages that its influence is a red line inside Iraq, and it may rely on pressuring the Marja’iyya of Muqtada al-Sadr in order not to deviate from the general line on which its policy in Iraq depends. In the first place, this means that, after the elections, Iraq appears to be facing political challenges that are not simple, especially since the forces loyal to Iran will not make the task easy for the tripartite alliance that is expected to be formed between al-Sadr, al-Halbousi, and Barzani.