Will Iraq ‘Lean West’ or ‘Lean Iran’?

May 11, 2018



Will Iraq ‘Lean West’ or ‘Lean Iran’?

After Saturday’s votes are counted, the U.S. must remain engaged as the parties form a government.

By Bartle Bull and Douglas Ollivant

Wall Street Journal
May 10, 2018

This week the world’s attention is focused on the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal. But another highly consequential event in the Washington-Tehran struggle will take place Saturday: Iraq’s national elections.

Four years after Islamic State exploded onto the scene, Iraq has survived, recovered and beaten expectations. Debates about whether the U.S. should have invaded in 2003, or left in 2011, are for historians. What matters today is that the U.S. has a significant interest in continuing to maintain an alliance with a free, democratic and West-leaning Iraq, which by some estimates is the world’s fourth-largest oil producer.

Iraq’s elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein have been free, fair and marked by large turnouts. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is riding high after his recent twin victories: the defeat of ISIS and the relatively bloodless recapture of oil-rich Kirkuk and other territories occupied by the Kurds. Given the Iraqi democracy’s relative durability, what’s at stake on Saturday? It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Iraqi voters ultimately will decide whether to “lean West” or “lean Iran.”

The Iranian regime is hard-line Shiite, and Iraq is about 65% Shiite. Remarkably, Mr. Abadi—a Shiite—earns his highest approval ratings among Iraq’s Sunnis. About two-thirds of the country’s largest religious minority approve of him because of the unusual care he showed toward local Sunni communities while liberating them from ISIS. Meanwhile, Iran is doing its best to influence the elections, backing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, other Shiite politicians, some Kurds and a slate of mostly Shiite militias.

In Iraq, national elections determine the relative sizes of the parties and factions, which then horse-trade the country’s way to a new government. A good day for Mr. Abadi might see his parliamentary “list” win more than 20% of the vote. His core allies are the al-Sadr movement of poor Shiite nationalists; most of the country’s Sunnis; the secular Shiites aligned with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi ; and the growing number of Iraqi Kurds who see their future as more stable, prosperous and free when aligned with Baghdad’s rising star.

It would undoubtedly be in the U.S. interest for Mr. Abadi to stay in office after the coming negotiations. He is an experienced capitalist who, upon coming to power, was Iraq’s only major Shiite politician never to have visited Tehran to pay obeisance. A proven war-winner, he is technocratic, conciliatory and nonsectarian by nature.

But strange things can happen after Iraqi elections. In 2010 Mr. Allawi won the most seats but Mr. Maliki took the prize. Then, in 2014, Mr. Maliki was unable to secure a third term, despite leading the party that won by far the most seats. In both cases, the U.S. put its thumb on the scale.

Iraq’s growing closeness to its Sunni Arab neighbors has been an important development. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia last year, and within two weeks the land border between the two countries opened for the first time since 1990. The United Arab Emirates is rebuilding Mosul’s great Sunni mosque. A new pipeline will take a million barrels of oil a day from southern Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Kuwait was the host of Iraq’s recent reconstruction summit.

Once Saturday’s votes have been counted and the postelectoral election begins, the U.S. and its regional Sunni allies must stay engaged, preventing Iranian money and intimidation from dominating the contest. Despite Iran’s long land border, the U.S. has the balance of advantages in Iraq, an Arab country with a young, free population and a lively economy. Hezbollah’s Lebanon and Bashar Assad’s Syria provide dismal examples of what Tehran’s embrace can do when America dithers. The U.S. has major resources in Iraq. In our experience, President Trump is popular there. If America uses its assets properly, Iraq’s democracy is far more dangerous to the regime in Tehran than vice versa.

The U.S. essentially built the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, which was crucial in the fight against ISIS. Decimated by the fight, the CTS needs U.S. help to rebuild. So long as America’s allies control Baghdad, the U.S. should continue to sell arms to Iraq, finance its military, and train and equip its counterterrorism forces. With GDP growth averaging 4.5% since 2016 and oil production still improving in the south, Iraq could eventually become a U.S. arms customer on the scale of Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. should dangle a full package of military and nonmilitary support during the government-formation negotiations. This is not aid but an investment in a key ally. Last year Washington turned the tide against ISIS by providing a full spectrum of diplomatic assistance, air power, military trainers, and help in navigating the international capital markets. It also helped shepherd International Monetary Fund reforms and brought the World Bank to the table. America’s friends around the world—especially those in a tough neighborhood like the Middle East—should know these are the rewards for good behavior.

Mr. Bull is a founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment firm. Mr. Ollivant is a senior fellow at New America and a managing partner at Mantid International, a Baghdad-based compliance firm.

Appeared in the May 11, 2018, print edition.