Iran has played many political roles in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein: spoiler to American-crafted administrations, haven for Iraqi political outcasts and big brother to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
Now add a new description as emergency repairmen trying to keep al-Maliki’s coalition from splitting at the seams.
Shiite powerhouse Iran appears desperate to save the patchwork administration it helped create in late 2010 to pull Iraq out of its last major political crisis. Tehran is calling in favors among its allied factions in Iraq, and exerting its significant religious and commercial influence to try to block al-Maliki’s opponents from getting a no-confidence motion, reports The Associated Press.
On Monday, one of the linchpin partners in al-Maliki’s government, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, travelled to Iran for talks, government officials said. A day earlier, al-Sadr urged al-Maliki to "do the right thing" and resign, but it remains unclear whether al-Sadr will bow to Iranian pressure in the end.
A collapse of al-Maliki’s government would be a potential stinging blow to Iran’s ruling system, which is already nervous about the future of its other critical Middle East ally, Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad. It also presents a rare convergence of interests between Tehran and Washington, which also views the wily al-Maliki as perhaps the only viable Iraqi leader for the moment.
"No doubt Iran is a significant political force in Iraq," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. "They are actively and aggressively trying to keep al-Maliki in power. The fear is that the downfall of al-Maliki, coupled with the uncertainties about Assad’s fate in Syria, could leave the Iranians suddenly looking at unfriendly faces."
Iran’s fingerprints are all over al-Maliki’s inner circle.
Iran helped engineer the deal in December 2010 that brought al-Sadr’s anti-American bloc into the political fold, ending a nine-month political stalemate and keeping al-Maliki as prime minister.
In April, al-Maliki was given a red carpet welcome during a visit to Tehran, where he had spent some time as an anti-Saddam activist. Iran delivered an even bigger reward to al-Maliki in May: bringing the nuclear talks with world powers to Baghdad as a symbol of the city’s slow rebound from war and as a showcase of Iran’s close ties.
But al-Maliki’s political safety net was fraying at the same time.