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In Iraq leadership crisis, US and Iran find themselves playing on same side

Howard LaFranchiThe Christian Science Monitor

In a bid to foster better relations between the United States and Iran, the State Department is sponsoring a series of friendly volleyball matches in southern California this week between Team USA and the Iranian national team.

Maybe between games the players can discuss how the US and Iran are seeing eye-to-eye on a growing number of challenges in the Middle East, including now Iraq.

Yes, Iraq. After years of antagonism over Iraq’s political evolution, and accusations that Iranian-backed and Iranian-armed militias were responsible for the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, now Washington and Tehran are on the same page. 

Both the US and Iran indicated this week that they support the designation of Jaidar al-Abadi to become Iraq’s next prime minister and to replace Nouri al-Maliki, who during most of his eight years in the office was close to Tehran.

And the reason the two erstwhile adversaries have forsaken Mr. Maliki in favor of Mr. Abadi is one and the same for both Washington and Tehran. Both view the advancing Sunni militant organization calling itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as the major threat facing Iraq and their interests in the region, experts say.

As a result, both consider a political accommodation in Baghdad that leaves out the factious Mr. Maliki and overcomes Iraq’s debilitating sectarian divisions the key to unifying Iraq against ISIS and taking back the territory in northwestern Iraq the group has seized.

On Monday Iraq’s president, Fuad Massum, nominated Abadi to become prime minister. Maliki rejected Abadi’s designation, claiming instead that he has a right to a third term. Both Abadi and Maliki are Shiites. Iraq’s army has signaled support for Massum’s designation of Abadi, but on Tuesday Maliki still appeared to be able to count on the support of the country’s elite, US-trained special forces.  

Iran analysts say that by signaling their support for Abadi and for Maliki’s departure from power, Iran’s leaders are taking a pragmatic approach and putting a priority on resolving Iraq’s political stalemate – even if it means appearing to align with the US and other Western powers on Iraq.

Iran’s casting aside of Maliki in favor of Abadi did not occur overnight, but appears to have been carefully thought out, analysts say.

Kenneth Pollack, an expert in Iraq and Iran at the Brookings Institution in Washington, notes that Qassem Suleimani – commander of the Qods Force, a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and long influential in Iraq – participated in meetings with Iraq’s Shiite political leaders that narrowed the choice for an alternative to Maliki down to Abadi.

In a blogpost Tuesday titled “Iran and its militias back new prime minister,” Jessica Lewis and Kimberly Kagan of Washington’s Institute for the Study of War note that Iraq’s chief Iranian-backed militias dropped their support for Maliki and released statements supporting the Shiite National Alliance coalition’s decision to support Abadi over Maliki. Such endorsements “are not likely … without top cover from Qassem Suleimani,” the two Iraq experts said.

On Monday, a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, issued a statement in Tehran signaling the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for Abadi’s designation.

Mr. Shamkhani said that “the framework provided by the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the prime minister has been chosen by the majority group in the parliament.” He further called on “all groups and coalitions in Iraq” to put the country’s “national interest” first and above politics.     

“It’s clear that Iran has a lot more influence than we do” in shaping Iraq’s political landscape, Mr. Pollack says. “But we’re making it very clear that we [the US] are behind Massum and Abadi, and Iran also wants Maliki out. That puts us on the same page.”

A US-Iran alignment of “political expediency” in Iraq does not mean the US will suddenly forget its opposition to what it sees as Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region, particularly in backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, regional experts say.

What it does mean, they add, is that, at least for right now, the US and Iran both see ISIS as the major threat in the region – and that it will take a politically stable and unified Iraq to push back the Sunni extremist group.