Iraq Needs a Grand Bargain to Halt Its Downward Spiral

Iraq Needs a Grand Bargain to Halt Its Downward Spiral
Anti-government protesters try to force their way into the Green Zone area in Baghdad, Iraq, May 25, 2021 (AP photo by Khalid Mohammed).

There is serious doubt as to whether Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections in October will be free and fair, or have any meaningful level of voter turnout, yet the outcome is easy to foresee. Iraqi elections inevitably produce no clear winner: Major parties compete as parts of alliances, and once results are announced, several of these blocs engage in a protracted period of negotiations that yields a fragile ruling coalition. These weak governments, hobbled by political divisions and corruption, are designed to maintain the political elite’s grip on power and protect the system from internal and external pressures. The prime minister, who heads a government of rivals concerned with protecting their own gains at the cost of the state, becomes either a toothless bystander or a willing participant in the game.

At the same time, the prime minister is also the only one who might conceivably change the status quo and force the country onto a new path. Doing so will require striking a grand bargain with all of Iraq’s key external partners, addressing each side’s concerns in return for concessions that serve Iraqi interests. Such a grand bargain will require negotiating with tough partners who are already in a more advantageous position. The next Iraqi prime minister should be prepared for such an undertaking, as it will be one of the last opportunities to turn the country around from its current state of economic decline, insecurity and social unrest.

The most critical deal that must be struck is with Iran. It is common knowledge in Baghdad that Iran is the most powerful and influential actor in Iraq, given its sponsorship of armed groups and associated political parties that have infiltrated the state at all levels. However, successive Iraqi prime ministers have failed to restore balance to a bilateral relationship that is heavily tilted in Tehran’s favor. In part, this is due to Iraqi officials’ lack of understanding of how foreign policy is shaped in Iran. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and his predecessors have generally tried to work with the Iranian president’s office or other government agencies, like the Intelligence Ministry, but have run up against the reality that those entities only make up part of the system. In reality, it is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, the most powerful branch of Iran’s military, that calls the shots in Iraq through its control of armed proxy groups and political entities that carry out attacks on U.S. facilities and enforce pro-Iranian policies. Thus, to achieve anything with Iran, the Iraqi government needs to reach an understanding not only with Iran’s elected government, but also with the IRGC and the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which oversees defense and foreign policy. These are the main pillars of the Islamic Republic’s political system, and a deal with Iran needs to involve an agreement with all three.

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