During the Bush administration, then-Senator Biden called for the partition of Iraq into three states: one for the Shia, one for the Sunni and one for the Kurds. At the moment, Iraq has gone him one better: there’s the ISIS government in the Sunni areas, an increasingly independence-minded government in Kurdistan, and two rival Shiite Prime Ministers in Baghdad.
Two days after he deployed soldiers across Baghdad in what looked to some observers like a coup, two-term Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to be on the skids. Even before this weekend, he had begun to lose control of his Shi’a political base, when the revered Ayatollah Sistani called for him to step aside Friday. Meanwhile Iran, which according to one top U.S. diplomat was the power behind Maliki’s second term in office, has also turned against him. According to this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the Prime Minister’s gambit on Sunday night was the last straw in what had already become a strained relationship:
Mr. Maliki threatened legal action against [Iraqi President Fuad] Masum in a televised speech on Sunday night, accusing him of subverting the constitution’s timeline. Mr. Maliki also ordered security forces to deploy throughout Baghdad, an ominous signal that he might use force to defend his premiership.
But the speech backfired: Politicians who had once stood beside Mr. Maliki were appalled by his aggression. The speech also struck a dissonant note with one of Mr. Maliki’s stronger allies: Iraq’s Shiite-majority neighbor Iran.
Senior officials in the Islamic Republic had long felt snubbed by Mr. Abadi, who had neglected to visit the regional Shiite powerhouse, even on religious pilgrimage, for the past 10 years.
But Iranian diplomats lifted their objections to Mr. Abadi only after watching Mr. Maliki’s speech, said a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
That same night, Iraq’s ruling parliamentary coalition, the State of Law, which includes Mr. Maliki’s Dawa party, offered Mr. Abadi the Prime Ministership.
Since the Americans also want Maliki to go, he would seem not to have a lot of friends left. But Iraqi politics is nothing if not a blood sport, and so force rather than opinion polling is likely to determine who wins the Prime Minister slot. As of Monday, Maliki, who has been busily stuffing his supporters into strategic positions in the military since the day he assumed power, still seemed to have some friends with guns and tanks. On Tuesday, however, the tide seemed to be turning against him as powerful Shi’a militias declared their support for Abadi.
Maliki has succeeded in creating a politicized army that can’t hold its own on the battlefield against external enemies; the question is whether he’s also created an army that will crush domestic opponents in order to keep him in power. Heavily armed Shi’a militias roam the streets of Baghdad, and ISIS fighters prowl the suburbs. The guys with the guns will decide who ultimately rules in Baghdad: Maliki, his rival Abadi, or the ‘Caliph’ of ISIS.
As Maliki loses ground in the face of combined US-Iranian disapproval, rapprochement with Iran is probably looking more appealing to the White House than ever. The U.S. and Iran are both concerned about ISIS and they both agree on the need for pragmatic, results oriented leadership in Baghdad as the threat grows. The convergence of U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq continues to develop.
If there is one fixed star in the administration’s Middle East policy it has been the belief that a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran offers the best hope for regional stabilization. From the campaign trail back in the Democratic primary season in 2008 right up through the current round of negotiations with Iran, President Obama has done his best to steer American policy toward some kind of arrangement with the government in Tehran. He is likely to be strengthened in that belief by the recent developments in Iraq and will be more convinced than ever that his core strategy of attempting a nuclear deal with Iran as the basis for a new architecture in the Middle East remains his best and perhaps his only option.
There are signs that many of the President’s advisors share a belief that the rise of ISIS is as frightening to the mullahs as it is to the West, and that the new jihadi peril will therefore strengthen the factions in Iran who believe in compromise with the West. They will see Iran’s willingness to accept Abadi as evidence that much broader cooperation is possible, and they will urge President Obama to do everything he can to seize the opportunity for a breakthrough with Iran. U.S. negotiators will sweat blood to meet the new November deadline in talks with Tehran, in Iraq the Administration will seek to build on common support for Abadi, and militarily we may even look for ways to cooperate with Iran against ISIS.
More, the perception that a breakthrough with Iran is just around the corner will encourage the President to slight or sacrifice the interests of traditional U.S. allies in the region. It will strengthen the hand of those in the Administration who tell the President that he should stay the course in the Middle East, pursuing a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran, and supporting ‘moderate Islamists’ and pro-Muslim Brotherhood governments in places like Qatar and Turkey, even if that alienates Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.
If America takes this course, expect regional tensions to rise, rather than relax, even if things calm down in Baghdad. It’s not clear that the President’s goal of a grand bargain with Iran is within reach, or that it will deliver the kind of stability he hopes for. For one thing, it’s possible that the Iranians are less interested in reaching a pragmatic and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington than in using Obama’s hunger for a transformative and redeeming diplomatic success to lure him onto a risky and ultimately disastrous course.
For another, Iran’s local rivals will be looking for ways to derail administration strategy on the ground. As we’ve seen from the Saudi-backed coup in Egypt against the U.S.-backed Morsi government, and again in the Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli partnership to derail John Kerry’s Gaza diplomacy, this alliance is not without capabilities. There’s a very good chance that determined and feisty opposition by the new Cairo-Jerusalem-Riyadh axis, or by Iran’s opponents in the U.S. Congress, would wreck the President’s Iran deal even before it gets struck. Meanwhile, even as the President approaches the moment of truth with Iran, the region is becoming more explosive and less stable by the day.
President Obama cannot be enjoying his job these days. There must be moments when even he wonders whether he is Frodo toiling patiently across the forbidding terrain of Mordor on a difficult but necessary quest or Captain Ahab hunting the Great White Whale.
It’s a risky path for a man who hates drama, and in the meantime, President Obama faces more doubts from his base. With figures like Hillary Clinton and Dana Milbank channeling criticisms that we’ve made on this site about the President’s course, and with the Senate race looking tougher for Democrats by the day, President Obama’s hold over the press and his party is visibly loosening.
Of course, the President can tell himself, Frodo also had it tough as he struggled toward Mount Doom. And Gollum, who helped Frodo up the mountains in the first part of his journey betrayed him in the end, just as Hillary has turned on Obama’s foreign policy as the skies ahead grow dark. (We wants the Precious, hiss the Clintons as they lurk outside the Oval Office. It’s ours! You stole it!)
Meanwhile, the President is bombing Iraq and pushing for regime change in Baghdad; staying out of war turns out to be harder than that idealistic freshman senator from Illinois thought.