The surprising victory of an electoral bloc controlled by the influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq’s parliamentary elections May 12 can help reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Iran-backed Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc came in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once seen as the front-runner, finished third.
Even though, Sadr cannot become prime minister as he was not a candidate in the election himself, but by controlling 54 seats in the next parliament it is very likely that Sadr can influence the formation of the new government and the selection of a new prime minister.
The victory of the young cleric means in fact that Iran will lose some of its influence in the neighboring country.
Sadr, the son of an influential Iraqi ayatollah murdered in the 1990s because of his opposition to the former President Saddam Hussein, was a close ally of Iran in the past, however toward the end of Nuri al-Maliki’s era as prime minister, he distanced himself from Tehran. The Mahdi Army a militia group that he created in 2003 was one of the reasons for his dispute with Iran. He used his forces a few times to challenge Prime Minister Maleki who was a close ally of Iran.
Additionally, in contrast to Iran that still supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sadr has been for his removal from power.
Sadr slowly has turned into a more complex figure. In the recent election, he presented himself as the supporter of the poor and dispossessed and entered into alliance with Communists, Kurds, and Arab Sunnis.
In an interview with the London based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Sadr said last year that he was about to create a bloc with “independent technocrats” in order to serve his country.
The young cleric did not leave any doubt about his political divorce from Iran when in 2017 he visited the Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With the victory of Sadr in the parliamentary election in Iraq, now, the door has been opened for Saudis to increase their involvement in Iraqi politics at Tehran’s expense.
Iran has invested in multiple groups in Iraq. Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri and the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who respectively came second and fourth in the parliamentary elections. Certainly, they can still pose a challenge to Sadr.
After the formation of the new Iraqi government, the foreign policy and relations with the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be on the agenda. Considering the election results, it is very likely that Iraq which has been influenced by its neighbor Iran since the fall of Saddam Hussein, will move away from Tehran.
The extent of this change will depend on many factors, including how far Iran’s regional rivals can influence the new Iraqi government.
At the same time, after its withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington will be focused on minimizing Tehran’s influence in the region. Since Iran’s allies are not the winners of the recent election in Iraq, the United States might have the opportunity to play a more significant role in the country.
The emergence of the Islamic State allowed Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, and now after its defeat, Tehran’s role is fading fast.