With the Shia-dominated parties of the United Iraq Alliance poised to have influential role in Iraq's new government, Iran stands to receive a geopolitical boost.
Talks between United Iraq Alliance (UIA) representatives and Kurdish political leaders on the government's composition have stalled. But politicians say they're aiming to resolve their differences by the end of March. Whenever the government is formed, political analysts expect the UIA to have a dominating role, based on its strong showing in Iraq's parliamentary vote in January. The alliance's 48 percent share of the vote translated into an outright majority of 140 MPs in the new 275-member legislature. The Kurdistan Alliance has 75 seats in the parliament.
The Iraqi election, along with the fact that the UIA will be a prominent part of the government in Baghdad, has served the bolster Iran's embattled government, which is struggling to counter international pressure over the country's nuclear program, some regional observers say. "The election is seen here in Tehran as an endorsement of the [Iranian] government's policies in the Iraqi theatre," said an academic in Iran who closely monitors Iraqi events. "It is also the first time in over two centuries in which the map of the area is changing in Iran's favor."
Two key components of the UIA the Da'wa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) have strong political and historical ties to predominantly Shia Iran. The Islamic republic offered sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shias, including Da'wa and SCIRI leaders, during the early 1980s, when then-dictator Saddam Hussein undertook a campaign to stamp out a Shia-led armed uprising. Over the years, Iran has provided the two Iraqi political groups with weapons, along with financial and logistical support.
Over the near term, Iranian leaders hope the UIA-dominated government in Iraq will change some policies favored by incumbent interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. In particular, Iranian leaders are wary of Allawi's efforts to bring back thousands of members of the Baath Party -- Saddam Hussein's chief tool of repression -- into government. Baathists are generally believed to hold strongly anti-Persian views.
Allawi's government has openly sparred with Tehran in recent months. For example, Hazim Shalan, Allawi's defense minister and a former Baath official, repeatedly described Iran as "Iraq's enemy number one," alleging that Tehran was a major supporter the Iraq insurgency.
In contrast to Allawi, both Da'wa and SCIRI advocate friendly relations with Iran. Ibrahim Jafari, a leader of Da'wa and the UIA's candidate to be Iraq's next prime minister, spent several years in Iran in the 80s and reportedly favors cordial ties between the two countries. He has also promised to carry out a de-Baathification campaign within the government, although he has said only those linked to atrocities and misdeeds would be purged.
An indicator of the nature of the UIA's relationship with Tehran would be the future Iraq government's position on the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). The group, which is armed and dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic leadership in Iran, has enjoyed sanctuary in Iraq for years. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. If the UIA-government decides to change the existing stance on the MEK, especially if Iraq removes sanctuary status for the group, Iran would register a major political victory, according to Shaul Bakhash, a Middle East specialist at George Mason University.
The potential political benefits of a UIA government for Tehran could help keep the lid on tension between Iranian and Iraqi Shia clerics. It is an open secret in Tehran that some Iranian hardliners view the Iraqi Shia religious establishment, based in Najaf, with suspicion. For the most part, however, Iranian hardliners have kept their opinions of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani out of the public realm.
Despite the favorable outcome for Iranian interests, most Iranian conservatives have been restrained in publicly assessing the Iraqi election, not wanting to be seen as endorsing in any way what is viewed in Tehran as US-sponsorship of the democratic process in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders seem to be growing wary of the increasing assertiveness of Kurdish political leaders. Relations between Tehran and Kurdish nationalist groups in northern Iraq are believed to be relatively good, rooted in mutual antipathy for Saddam Hussein's old regime. Nevertheless, Iranian officials are known to oppose Kurdish efforts to secure autonomous powers for their northern Iraqi homeland. Accordingly, many in Tehran do not want to see Iraqi Kurdish leaders to gain prominent positions in the new Iraqi government. The chief worry in Tehran is that Iraqi Kurdish success in their autonomy drive could cause unrest among Kurds in Iran.
On February 3, a huge crowd gathered in the Iranian Kurdish capital of Mahabad to celebrate the election results in Iraq. In addition, several Iranian Kurdish professionals and intellectuals have reportedly moved to Kurdish-dominated regions of Iraq, seeking to participate in the region's reconstruction and to bolster the Kurdish national identity.
Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian politics.