Mustafa al-Kadhimi has managed to gain the confidence of the Iraqi parliament and became officially Iraq’s Prime Minister. Parliament voted for the government (including for the defence and interior ministers) on 6 May 2020 pending completion of the names of those who would assume the other ministerial offices, something which has become commonplace during the formation of any government in Iraq since 2003. Doubtlessly, the formation and approval of the al-Kadhimi government constitute an important political event, not only in light of the failure by others to form a new government since the resignation of former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (Mohammed Tawfik Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi), but also because the name of al-Kadhimi, his political and professional background and the circumstances of the formation of his government warrant a deeper reading of the shifts in the regional and international landscapes.
The position of the US and Iran on the designation of al-Kadhimi
Since the fall of the regime of late president Saddam Hussein in 2003, the process of forming any government has always constituted an initial front of the fronts of the Iranian-US conflict to extend influence within the “new Iraq”. It was clear that a difficult coexistence continued to occur within the successive governments while acting to favour one side or the other, although the Iranian influence had always gained the lion’s share within the governments that followed the US withdrawal from Iraq (2011) during the term of former President Barack Obama.
The rejection expressed by pro-Iran Iraqi powers of the designation of al-Kadhimi for this office had implied that he is not favoured by Teheran, especially that some of the campaigns of those powers accused al-Kadhimi, in his capacity as director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, of being complicit with the Americans in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces) on 3 January 2020. However, the attendance by leaders of the Shiite political powers of the ceremony to designate al-Kadhimi by President Barham Salih to form the government (9 April 2020) indicated that the Iranian veto of al-Kadhimi has been lifted and that the Al-Kadhimi government is benefitting from ongoing shifts within the decision-making circles in Teheran.
It would be simplistic to say that Mustafa al-Kadhimi represents a preference for the US influence in Iraq, although Washington does prefer him to other names that are clearly pro-Iranian or with vague identities and positions. While Teheran traditionally needs a name that is fully loyal to the Islamic Republic, Washington, while favouring names that are hostile to Iran, has begun tending to support centrist names who seek to maximize the sovereign position of the Iraqi state.
Apparently, the warm welcome given to al-Kadhimi, in terms of the formalities of the designation, the concessions of formation, and the speed of the confidence given to him and his government, is attributable to a US-Iranian point of intersection whose features it is still too early to identify accurately. Most probably al-Kadhimi’s character and career were reassuring enough to Iraqi political blocs. Most probably also, US-led western pressures have contributed to facilitating al-Kadhimi’s task and calming down the Iraqi landscape as a conflict arena and a medium for the exchange of dramatic messages between Washington and Teheran. A case in point is the interesting sign by Washington through its decision to allow Iraq to import electricity from Iran for an additional 120 days. Equally interesting perhaps is the alleged relinquishment by the Kurds of their candidate for the Ministry of Finance in what was understood as a response to Washington’s pressures to facilitate the formation of the al-Kadhimi government.
Al-Kadhimi government and its chances of reconciling the Iraqi street and refraining from getting involved in regional conflicts
Al-Kadhimi clearly wants to benefit from the current domestic, regional and international settings to take speedy and bold steps to reconcile the Iraqi street that has been experiencing an uprising since October 2019. Based on this external driving force, the new Iraqi Prime Minister has a relatively wider margin of manoeuvre, be it on the issue of prosecuting those who killed the protesters (together with what this amounts to in terms of penetrating party circles close to Iran), the issue of the promise to hold early parliamentary elections (persistently rejected by those circles at earlier times) that the names previously designated to form the government could not promise so clearly, or in terms of bringing about fairness for Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi by returning him to his job, promoting him, and appointing him as head of the Counter-Terrorism Service.
In his capacity as head of the intelligence service, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has at his disposal accurate sensory data that no other political names may have. Besides, his capability of running the service from within political and militia-led minefields known to the country manifests an important side of his character and capability of engage with all Iraq’s internal contradictions and to coexis with the discrepancies of external agendas on this country.
Al-Kadhimi is aware that wisdom requires that he press for strengthening the Iraqi state without clashing with the regional reality represented by the Iranian influence within the political class, particularly within the Shiite parties. Most probably, the new Prime Minister has given serious assurances to Teheran that he will not practise a hostile policy towards Iran’s interests in Iraq, especially that he, based on his experience and former position, is aware that he cannot otherwise form a government and practise governance.
Based on the robustness of those assurances, al-Kadhimi promises openness to the Arab world, particularly the Gulf countries. He also seeks to develop and redefine relations between Iraq and the US and reach an understanding on their future in a manner that would go beyond what the Iraqi Parliament (in the aftermath of the killing of Soleimani) had called on the Baghdad government to do in terms of seeking to evacuate US troops from the country.
Al-Kadhimi benefits from several factors that might help him carry out his tasks without major internal or external obstacles. The first of those factors is the exposure of the political class since the outbreak of the popular movement and its clear failure to counter that movement and form a government that stands up to this challenge.
The second factor is the need by both the US and Iran to calm down the Iraqi arena and stop dealing with it as a field for clash and settling accounts for what took place since the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis.
The third factor is the escalation of the Iraqi economic crisis and the prevailing climate of economic recession in the region and the world as a result of the corona virus pandemic crisis which urgently requires putting the Iraqi house in order.
It is worth noting perhaps that many issues in the region will await the identity of the next US President based on the decision of US voters next November, and that al-Kadhimi has a grace period of several months, perhaps until next year, when the fog over the regional landscape would clear, especially with regard to the future of the conflict with Iran and the future of settlement in Syria.
Mohamad Kawas | 27 May 2020
Amr Abdelatty | 18 May 2020
EPC | 17 May 2020