On May 30, in a two-minute session, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) for another year until May 31, 2024.
The head of UNAMI, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, was empowered to continue her efforts to provide advice, support, and assistance to the government and people of Iraq by promoting national and community-level reconciliation; aiding the electoral process; facilitating regional dialogue between Iraq and its neighbors; protecting human rights; and promoting judicial and legal reforms.
UNAMI’s mandate refers only obliquely to the one overriding factor in Iraq’s situation – the influence of Iran. Iran dominates almost every aspect of the country’s governance, and Hennis-Plasschaert has told the Security Council that “pervasive corruption is a major root cause of Iraqi dysfunctionality.”
Although Iraq’s last election in October 2021 gave a majority of seats to the main anti-Iranian political bloc, that of Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, it did not give al-Sadr victory. A long period of political stalemate followed the poll. No president or prime minister was appointed and no government formed.
Through poor judgment or bad advice, al-Sadr threw away his winning hand. A series of impulsive political decisions, some of which he probably regrets, finally handed power to the main pro-Iranian bloc, the Coordination Framework. Once the political logjam was broken, a Kurdish politician, Abdul Latif Rashid, was approved as president, and a pro-Iranian, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, was apppointed prime minister.
Iran has burrowed deep into Iraq’s body politic and its administration. More than a dozen Iraqi political parties have ties to Iran, which funds and trains paramilitary groups aligned with them. Some groups have explicitly pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Prime minister al-Sudani is said not to be comfortable with these loose cannon, but he has avoided confronting them directly. In outlining his government’s intentions, he has gone no further than stating that his government will try to put an end to weapons over which there is no state control.
It is not easy to deduce the reasoning behind some of al-Sadr’s surprising decisions. For example, when Iraq’s 2021 general election had led to more than a year of political deadlock, what led al-Sadr to order the members of his bloc to resign from parliament? How did he envisage benefiting politically?
It is difficult to believe he was unaware that under Iraqi law, if an MP resigns, the second-placed candidate in the election takes the empty seat. The process of filling the seats vacated by al-Sadr’s 74-seat bloc led to a new wave of intense debate and protests, but finally the pro-Iran Coordination Framework became the majority bloc in parliament. It then nominated al-Sudani as prime minister.
This resulted in violent clashes between al-Sadr’s supporters and pro-Iranian factions, mainly in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the administrative center of the country. Then, in August 2022 came another dramatic announcement from al-Sadr the motive for which is difficult to discern. He suddenly announced that he was retiring from politics. Whether he meant to quit his political career altogether, or merely withdraw from what he regarded as Iraq’s corrupt political scene, was not clear. In any case he lost none of his prominence in Iraqi life as a result, and the violence subsided.
More recently another startling al-Sadr announcement hit the headlines. On April 13, 2023 he declared that he was suspending his organization for one year in an effort to curb “corruption”. Since he was still associating himself with his political group, he has clearly reneged on his earlier decision to leave politics, but the true import of this latest announcement remains to be seen.
Meanwhile the new Iraqi cabinet, approved by parliament in October 2022, is implementing a reform package. It is seeking to reform the economic and financial sectors, tackle unemployment, create work opportunities, and enhance public services. On March 13, al-Sudani announced that the government had finalised its draft budget law for 2023-2025 which aims to address these priorities.
The program also commits the government to amending electoral legislation and holding parliamentary elections within a year. Consequently, parliament voted on March 27 to adopt a proportional representation system of voting and to reform the electoral division of the country.
On the economic front, the government has announced a series of agreements with international energy companies to boost the production of domestic oil, gas, and renewables. Long-running tensions between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the sharing of oil revenue persist, however.
Iran’s heavy hand is apparent in shaping Iraq’s security priorities. In September and November 2022 Iran mounted a series of air strikes against Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Shortly afterwards al-Sudani met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. In a joint news conference after the meeting, al-Sudani announced that Iraq will strengthen its security cooperation with Iran and prevent “the use of Iraqi lands to threaten Iran’s security”.
On March 19 Iraq and Iran signed a border security agreement. According to a statement released by al-Sudani’s office, they agreed to coordinate efforts in “protecting the common borders between the two countries and consolidating cooperation in several security fields.” An Iraqi security official added: “Under the signed security deal, Iraq pledges it would not allow armed groups to use its territory in the Iraqi Kurdish region to launch any border-crossing attacks on neighbour Iran.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq on March 30, 2003, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, visited the country for the first time in six years, reiterating in a joint press conference with al-Sudani on March 1 “the commitment of the United Nations to support Iraq in t he consolidation of its democratic institutions, and advancing peace, sustainable development and human rights for all Iraqis”. He side-stepped the all-pervading influence of Iran.
One week later, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also traveled to Baghdad and reaffirmed the US commitment to retaining its current military presence of 2,500 troops in the country. In supporting the continued presence of US troops in Iraq, al-Sudani is at odds with several Iran-aligned groups. He regards them as vital in the continued fight against ISIS militias.
On March 20, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, held a press conference to mark “the 20th anniversary of US aggression against Iraq.” The irony involved in Russia condemning aggression was no doubt unintentional.