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Even when they do not win, Iran’s Iraqi loyalists refuse to lose

Iran regions map
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Benefiting from a skewed supreme court interpretation of the Iraqi constitution, Iran’s loyalists once again prevented the Iraqi parliament from electing a president, thus violating a constitutional mandate that a presidential election be held within 30 days of electing a speaker, which happened in January. اضافة اعلان

With parliament stalled, Iran and its tiny minority bloc are forcing Iraq’s parliamentary majority to choose between forming a “national unity Cabinet” with Iranian loyalists and keeping parliament closed indefinitely. Whichever way it plays out, the standoff has only deepened a political crisis that has plagued the war-scarred country for months.

In February, Iraq’s Supreme Court dealt the country’s anti-Iran majority a stinging defeat when it offered an unconvincing explanation of how parliament should elect a president. The court in effect saved Iran from the humiliation suffered in October’s parliamentary election, when its loyalists won only 62 out of parliament’s 329 seats.

While most of the judges on the court are Shiite, there is no clear evidence that they are partisans of Iran. That is because the court does not share its deliberations or details of how it reaches its decisions. It only issues a verdict with the signature of all nine judges. In this case, it seems the court was thinking that the inclusion of more blocs in government would produce stronger Cabinets.

The Iraqi constitution stipulates that a simple parliamentary majority of 165 MPs constitutes a quorum. For the election of a president, the constitution says that a winner should collect support from two-thirds “of members”, without specifying whether that means all 329 office holders, or just those present for the vote.

Shutting down parliament was Iran’s only hope for stopping the majority from electing a president and prime minister and forming a Cabinet. Iraq’s Supreme Court raised the quorum bar from one-half to two-thirds, with its interpretation that two-thirds meant all 329 members. But by doing so, the court undermined the basic constitutional principle of forming a simple majority government and forced in its stead a super majority.

In past elections, no bloc or alliance reached the simple 165 majority, and Iran’s loyalists usually won the biggest number of seats. Hence, the disagreement was usually over defining whether the biggest bloc meant the biggest party or the largest alliance. By the time a majority was obtained, a quorum was achieved and everything else fell in place.
Shutting down parliament was Iran’s only hope for stopping the majority from electing a president and prime minister and forming a Cabinet.
But Iraq’s 2021 election handed anti-Iran Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr the biggest bloc, with 73 MPs. Sunnis won two blocs that were merged to form a 51-seat alliance. The Kurdish Democratic Party won 31 seats. These three blocs then formed a 155-seat coalition and called it Rescue the Homeland (RH). Of the 43 independents elected, RH snatched enough MPs to become a simple majority coalition of 165 seats. The parties Etimad and New Generation also joined, raising RH’s seat count to 202. And yet, while a 202-seat majority is big, it falls short of the super majority now required to elect a president and form a Cabinet.

Before the court’s ruling, the RH majority re-elected, on January 9, Sunni Muhammad Al-Halbousi for a second term as speaker. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that the election of a president should have followed within 30 days. But Iran’s loyalists took up the issue with the Supreme Court, disputing Halbousi’s election. Trying to split hairs, the court affirmed Halbousi’s win but fixed quorum for the presidential election at 220.

While the pro-Iran bloc won only 62 seats, it managed to win over many legislators by twisting their arms, at times threatening violence. But on Wednesday, just as it did during the previous two attempts, the quorum collapsed, leaving RH with two bad options: either let Iranian loyalists join a new Cabinet or continue to linger under an interim one. Sadr did not mince words when he Tweeted his preference: “I will not reach a consensus with you. A stalemate is better than dividing state spoils.”

Iran and its loyalists do not care much about government. Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen are failed states, and Tehran has never showed willingness to lift a finger to bring about settlements. What Iran does, however, is make sure that no Cabinets are formed without its loyalists, which gives it the power to kill decrees or executive orders that might lead to the disarmament of its militias.

While Iran usually cloaks its quest for veto power behind insisting on the “Shiite share”, such cover has been blown in Iraq where the biggest elected Shiite bloc opposes Iran’s Islamist regime. In fact, all the components of Iraq’s majority coalition – the Shiite, the Sunni, and the Kurd – represent their electorates and oppose Iran.

Iran has therefore changed its narrative from demanding the “Shiite share” to insisting on “national unity”, which means giving Iran’s tiny minority veto power or living with a shutdown state. Before the supreme court handed Iran its ability to bring the state to a halt, Tehran’s loyalists often threatened civil war if a Cabinet was formed without them.

And thus, Iraq finds itself at a political standstill. Should Tehran’s loyalists win a majority, they would form a Cabinet while leaving the minority in their rearview mirror. For Iran, politics in Iraq comes down to this: find a way to win elections or employ strategies to ensure its loyalists never lose.


The writer is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.


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