By Xander Snyder
Iran’s influence in the Middle East is no secret. The government has made no effort to hide its regional ambitions, and it has barely balked in expanding its influence since the Islamic State was weakened. Its influence has always been kept in check by the fact that it is a Shiite country in a majority Sunni region. One notable exception is Shiite-majority Iraq, and the parliamentary elections on May 12 will be an indicator of just how deep Iran has sunk its roots into the organs of the state – and of just how divided Iraqi society is.
New and notable about the upcoming election is just how many political parties and coalitions there are in a contest that ordinarily sees just a few broad coalitions. These coalitions tend to run the gamut of political interests. In power currently is the State of Law coalition, which won more seats than any other coalition in 2014 but failed to win an outright majority. That year, Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, lost his position as prime minister. At the time, he was Iran’s preferred candidate, but fearing his loyalties to Tehran could lead to civil war again, Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, the United States, Iran and Iraqi Shiites all pressured him to step down from his post. He was replaced by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also a member of the Dawa Party but who is considered more moderate and less hostile to Sunni and Kurdish interests.
Now, the Dawa Party is fractured. Al-Maliki, who still has close ties to Iran, is running as the candidate from the State of Law coalition, which is attempting to appeal to the conservatives in Dawa, while al-Abadi is running as the candidate from the Victory coalition, which seeks to draw support from younger and less conservative Dawa members. Then there is the Marchers Alliance, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who also leads one of the biggest Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Al-Sadr had Iran’s support during the U.S. occupation in Iraq, but he has since resisted Iranian influence in favor of his own brand of Iraqi Shiite nationalism.
In all, there are five Shiite coalitions in the running for parliament, including the Conquest Alliance, which is led by the same man who heads an Iranian-backed PMF unit. Also in contention are two Sunni groups and multiple Kurdish factions that are even more divided than usual following the Kurdistan Regional Government’s failed independence referendum held last year.
Though Iran may prefer one group to beat the others, the government in Tehran will still have some degree of influence in Iraq regardless of who wins. After all, it still controls and funds plenty of PMF militias, at least one of whose leaders has publicly claimed that he would topple the Iraqi government if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei so ordered. Several important government positions, moreover, are held by people sympathetic to Iran, including the one responsible for determining which PMF groups get funding from the Iraqi government. In this context, whether a pro-Iran militia leader is elected to office is less important than what their mere candidacy reveals about Iran’s efforts to exert influence in Iraq.
Underlying the competition between Iraqi nationalists and pro-Iran factions is a battle for leadership of the Shiite Muslim world itself. Iran’s regime derives its legitimacy from its unique interpretation of a Shiite theological concept called velayat-e faqih, which roughly translates to “rule by jurist.” According to this theory, management of social matters should be entrusted in a jurist who will lead Muslims until the true successor to the Prophet Muhammad re-emerges. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first ruler of Iran, used this theory to argue that the Islamic Republic needed to be ruled by a supreme leader who would guide the nation in both religious and political affairs.
Others, however, have interpreted the doctrine differently. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, believes that the jurist’s role should be limited to providing spiritual guidance. Al-Sistani has advocated a democratic system in Iraq, one that incorporates all segments of society – Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians – into the body politic. Before Khomeini established the Islamic Republic in 1979, al-Sistani’s interpretation was the dominant one in Shiite theological circles, and even some ayatollahs in Iran opposed Khomeini’s doctrine.
This may seem like an arcane and nebulous theological distinction, but it has practical consequences. Al-Sistani’s approach lends itself to nationalism and conflicts with the transnational Shiite identity that Iran is trying to cultivate throughout the region in the hopes that it can ultimately build a Shiite empire. Al-Sistani, who ordered all able-bodied Iraqi – not Shiite – men to form militias to fight the Islamic State, told the PMF units loyal to him to disband after the Islamic State’s defeat and has advocated that religious leaders stay out of politics. But it is through those very PMF groups that Iran has exercised greater influence in Iraq. Nonetheless, Shiites loyal to al-Sistani remain wary of Iran’s role in Iraq and will seek to defeat the pro-Iran candidates in this weekend’s election.
Iran claims to be the true leader of Shiites in the Middle East, and since its clerical rule is based on the premise that religious leaders must also be political leaders, al-Sistani’s approach is a threat not only to Iran’s ability to project power in Iraq but also to the legitimacy of the theocratic regime in Iran itself. The two interpretations therefore focus on two competing identities: one as a citizen of a Shiite empire, and the other as a citizen of a nation-state where politics and religion are mostly separate (at least by the standards of the region). The upcoming election therefore is about more than just politics; it is the latest battle in a war over leadership of the Shiite world itself.