For five whole months Iraq has waited for a new government – will Mustafa al-Kadhimi be the one to break the deadlock? The prime minister designate has limited room to manoeuvre. But Tehran is feeling the pressure, too.
What has happened?
Mustafa al-Kadhimi has given himself until 25 April to present the Iraqi parliament with his proposal for the formation of a new cabinet. This date comes just two weeks before the expiration of the 30-day period stipulated by the constitution. It is a mammoth task for the prime minister designate but competing factions in Iraq and Iran’s political leadership also find themselves under pressure.
Kadhimi is already the third candidate to be invited to form a government by the country’s president, Barham Salih, since the resignation of Adel Abdul-Mahdi on 29 November 2019. Abdul-Mahdi formally left his position following an intense wave of nationwide demonstrations.
But neither former communications minister Mohammed Allawi, nor Adnan al-Zurfi, the former US-appointed governor of the province of Najaf, even got as far as proposing potential members of a new consensus government. They both bowed to fierce resistance (to varying degrees) from Tehran and the various Iran-affiliates who enjoy a majority in the Iraqi parliament.
What is this all about?
The formation of the Iraqi government reveals the limits of Iran’s influence over its neighbour. Kadhimi is not Tehran’s preferred candidate. The former journalist and long-time exile in Europe would be the first prime minister since Ayad Allawi in 2004 who does not hail from the pro-Iranian Islamist side of the spectrum. When he was unveiled as the prime minister designate in early April, Kadhimi initially met with more opposition than his predecessors, especially from the ranks of al-Hashd al-Shaabi or the People’s Mobilisation Units. For example, Kata’ib Hezbollah denounced him as a “US agent” who was involved in the assassination of their commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January. The 53-year-old has after all headed the Iraqi secret service since 2016.
In the end, however, the group’s protests went unheeded. And Kadhimi received the endorsement of the Hashd’s key political figures, such as the leaders of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri and the Sairoon coalition of Muqtada Sadr. They were, at least in part, apparently persuaded by the intervention of Esmail Qaani, the new commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. Qaani’s biggest task after the death of his predecessor, Qassem Suleimani, is probably to bring the allied political-military groups in the region into line. The fact that the formation of a government in a neighbouring country is dragging on so long casts doubt on Tehran’s claim to political leadership in the region. Iran also has a vested interest in preventing any oil, health and political crises in Iraq.
And despite the anti-American rhetoric, Tehran values the prime minister’s position as a point of contact with the Americans, which was long the case under both Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi. In practical terms, this is also about securing Iraq’s energy supply. In the past, Washington always exempted Baghdad from sanctions on Iran, which allowed the import of natural gas and electricity. This special arrangement was extended most recently on 26 March, but it expires after 30 days and must then be renegotiated.
What happens next?
Despite its strategic and surprisingly swift endorsement of Kadhimi, Tehran continues to worry about how the government will be formed. This is because the new leadership will only be installed when parliament approves both the budget and the composition of the cabinet. Kadhimi himself knows that there are tough negotiations ahead over potential influence and allocation funds among the various pro-Iranian factions. He has therefore presumably planned for what will happen during the two weeks between 25 April and the expiration of the deadline.
Meanwhile, many Iraqis must feel sidelined by the regular updates on the political horse-trading over the budget and jockeying over key posts. The Iraqi government did after all collapse in autumn 2019 over the consensus government’s failure to address the country’s fundamental structural problems and to fulfil its obligations to Iraqi citizens. The outgoing prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is still performing a caretaker role, expressed his understanding for the concerns of the protest movement before he resigned, and had floated the prospect of far-reaching reforms, none of which found the necessary political backing.
Now, those paramilitary groups who attacked demonstrators last autumn are insisting on their share as power is redistributed. And although Mustafa al-Kadhimi is no military and intelligence careerist, his agency also partook in the suppression of the protests and above all a satisfying conclusion of the pending investigation, one of the protestors’ central demands.
Robert Chatterjee is the deputy editor-in-chief of zenith.