An Iraqi View On Iraq’s Recent Elections

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

As Iraq’s post-election coalition negotiations continue, some Iraqi leaders were surprised by comments Vice President Joe Biden made to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on the election results last week (“The vice president bears good news from Iraq.”) Of particular concern was Biden’s assertion that Iran’s bid for influence in Iraq failed.

A senior adviser to one Iraqi leader wrote an email to Ignatius in response, and this has been circulated to Obama administration officials. I verified the authenticity of the email and got permission to post it on the condition of redacting anything that might indicate its source. This email offers a valuable perspective on the intensity of post-election jockeying and debate in Iraq:

Iran did not succeed in its efforts to determine the outcome of the elections but, I would not say it failed either. It is true that Iraqiya came first in elections and Iran is definitely not in favor of such an outcome. However, Iraqiya barely edged in the elections and Iran had a role in reducing the gap making life difficult for Iraqiya (through the de-Baathification crisis). This makes it almost impossible for Iraqiya to form a government without teaming up with either the Iraq National Alliance (INA) or the State of Law (SOL). This means, the least to say, that Iraqiya’s arm could be easily twisted by Iran.


Iran also succeeded in keeping its options open where, if the two Shiite blocs join, then they’ll be able to form the government. What made this scenario even more plausible is the Supreme Court’s advisory opinion about interpreting article 76 of the Iraqi constitution. The court’s opinion stated that the president can nominate a prime minister from either largest electoral bloc or the largest bloc formed after the elections. The nomination of the prime minister depends on the number of seats in parliament after it convenes.

As such, Iran right after the elections and under the premise of the “Nowrooz summit” invited the INA, SOL, and the Kurdish alliance for negotiations. It became clear that Iran is trying to create a gravitational center that controls — dominates — and attracts other blocs to form the coming government. The alliance of the two Shiite blocs is that center. The “summit” yielded agreement on the following principles: the coming prime minister must be a candidate of the two Shiite blocs; the two Shiite blocs would start negotiations to merge and thereby form the largest bloc in parliament that can nominate a prime minister; Kurds would join and Talabani would be the coming president.

For what it’s worth, I highly doubt that Iran wants to exclude Iraqiya. Iraqiya will be invited and will get a good share in the coming government. However, Iraqiya joining is not that relevant, because the broad lines (the defining features of the coming four years) will be set and mere participation in the government will become a consequence rather than a driving force.

If America’s ultimate wish is to merely have an inclusive government as Vice President Biden among many other American officials stated “Baghdad appears headed toward an ‘inclusive’ coalition government;” then, in principle there is no intersection between what both Iran and America are seeking. The Iranian Ambassador in Iraq stated that Iraqiya must participate in the coming government. Iran had invited the two Shiite blocs and the Kurds. So in effect Iran will push for participation of all blocs in the coming government.

I understand that there is a difference in defining inclusiveness. But, in effect what both Iran and America is calling for will lead to the same result. The efforts to form merely an inclusive government will lead to stagnation. This in effect would lead to failure in achieving any of the benchmarks set for a prosperous future for Iraq. Consequently, the incumbent will be forced to bypass formal democratic institutions to function.

It is important when talking about an inclusive process to consider the following questions: Where are the elections results in this equation? What did the Iraqi people vote for? How will the preferences of the Iraqi people be translated into the process of forming the coming government? Does voting, campaigning, and winning an election matter at all? And, how will such a process help in consolidating democracy in Iraq? Doesn’t talking vaguely about inclusiveness contradict with the purpose of holding elections?

The big question is: Who exactly — which candidates — from these coalitions will be pushed forward to assume posts in executive branch? If Iraqis get this question right, progress in Iraq will become self-reinforcing, and we can all have the Iraq we envision. Success in Iraq is contingent upon choosing the right person for the rights place: How can each candidate for posts in the executive branch serve in consolidating Iraq’s democracy, serve the purpose of fulfilling the bench marks necessary for materializing the Iraq we envision. Noting that the role of elites and the distribution of capabilities among these elites determine the course — success or failure — of transitions from dictatorship as the following quote indicates:

The centrality of political elites in establishing and terminating democracy, and deficits in rule of law and state capacity as the primary challenge to the quality and survival of new democracies … ranging from … the origins and design of democracy to its overall quality and sustainability … There is also widespread agreement that political elites play a central role in democratization … In particular, whether there is a transition from dictatorship to democracy seems to depend heavily on the interests, values, and actions of political leaders … If political leaders, for various reasons, are understood to be the founders of democracy, then they also often function, after that initial breakthrough, as its sustainers or its underminers … Political elites design political institutions (which affect the quality and, perhaps, the very survival of democracy).

The key question for regime paths is the distribution of liberal and illiberal political groupings between these two categories and the resources that mobilized versus demobilized groups command.

The Iranian efforts could lead to several consequences that I simply cannot squeeze into my email. However, I’ll state some consequences that might be relevant to America: Iran will gain an important leverage to outdo the US in Iraq; Iran will become more resilient than the US and will be able to maintain longer term influence. As such, Iran will be able to maneuver better and influence the actual formation of the government — not just the coalitions that will dominate the process but also the consequential question of which posts will be awarded to which candidates and from which coalitions. Consequently Iran will have an influence over the distribution of capabilities inside the government between nationalists and denominationalists.

This also means that the four years effort to move beyond identity politics and towards substantive politics will be diminished. Whoever becomes the prime minister from the two Shiite blocs will think many times before taking action against special groups, militias, or outlaws fearing political repercussions. The Shiite religious parties if united this time will become much more difficult to break up.

We could pretty much go back to the set up of 2006 when attempts to target outlaws in Sadr City will become a redline. Consequently, and as the Kurds haven’t moved beyond identity politics yet, and Shiites will rejoin, politics in Iraq could heavily shift back towards becoming descriptive. This will create a zero-sum game and stability will suffer first. The scenario that the Iranians are sponsoring is against what the Iraqi people voted for, against Iraqi interests, and against what the US has sacrificed to achieve.

It is highly important to emphasize one point; it’s not easy to translate the “Nowrooz summit’s” agreements to facts on the ground. A sticking point in the way of materializing these agreements is the question of who will become prime minister and which candidates from which parties will assume what ministerial posts? The “Nowrooz summit” agreements faces a real challenge because the positive sum game that proportional representation offers becomes a zero-sum game when parties need to push a single candidate to assume a post. It is only the failure to agree on the details that can thwart Iranian efforts. This needs a collective action not hands off policy

Therefore, it is premature to determine whether the Iranian efforts have failed or succeeded. Developments are so rapid that the balance is constantly shifting towards the Iranian efforts failure or success.

At the end, I am much in favor of inclusiveness along the broad lines that Zalmay Khalilzad suggested in his op-ed in the Financial Times. It clearly factors in the results of the elections and the preferences of the people. However, personal feelings of Iraqiya’s leadership and SOL’s leadership are standing in the way of materializing a promising scenario for Iraq’s future. this troubles me since, the coming government will determine the outcome of the change that took place in Iraq back in 2003. The future of Iraq will definitely have influence on the region (the Middle East), the Arab and Muslim world. This will also set the future for -Iraqi-US relations.