How Washington Learned to Love Haider al-Abadi
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi might seem an unlikely love interest for the U.S. government, given his decades-long membership in a Shia religious party that once received strong Iranian backing. But since taking office in the summer of 2014, the avuncular Iraqi prime minister has made himself everybody’s darling—and his reelection has come to be seen as an important objective for U.S. Middle East policy.
With Washington’s attention drifting from Syria to President Donald Trump’s grand project of rolling back Iranian influence in the broader Middle East, the situation in Iraq is coming into focus—and no one matters as much to Iraq’s future as Haider al-Abadi. Known, so far, as a pragmatist with a record of working with both the United States and Iran, Abadi is widely seen as the best hope for Iraq’s stability and autonomy, which remains at risk from Sunni jihadi insurgents as well as from the attempts of Iran-backed Shia hardliners to dominate the security apparatus. But much about Abadi, his policies, and his chances of success remains unclear—and Iraq’s future is still up for grabs.
This Century Foundation report, which is part of “Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism,” a multi-year TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will look at why the United States has lined up behind Abadi as Iraq moves toward elections on May 12, and will survey some of the challenges that await Iraq as the country moves toward post-conflict reconstruction buffeted by rival regional and international interests.
The Centrality of Iraq
The United States remains by far the most powerful international actor in the Middle East, but the region is changing and so is the nature of U.S. involvement there.1 America’s post-Cold War influence over this complex region has been tested by numerous challenges since the revolts of 2011, including the cruel civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; rapid changes in the posture of America’s Turkish ally;2 surging Russian and Iranian regional ambitions; and the inward turn of American politics, seen already under President Barack Obama (2008–2016) but most clearly on display in the rhetoric of current president Donald Trump.3
Trump’s sparsely furnished Middle East policy seems to rest on two main pillars: fighting the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, and taking a hard line on Iran. In both cases, Iraq is emerging as a central front.
Over the past several years, American Middle East policy has been trapped in a bitter argument over Syria, rehashing endless internal debates over Obama’s 2013 “red line” and the merits of intervention against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.4
That period is now coming to an end, with U.S. attention beginning to shift to other issues. The Syrian war is by no means over, but it has entered a sorting-out phase in which Assad’s government remains (barring unforeseen surprises, which cannot be excluded) in uncontested control over Damascus and most of Syria.5 Having long signaled that he wanted the United States to get out of the Syrian “quicksand,” Trump cut support for anti-Assad insurgents in 2017.6 Although Washington will remain intimately involved in that conflict, including by tangling with Turkey over the role of U.S.-backed Kurdish groups and by working with Israel and other nations to push back against Iranian influence, there are now some fairly hard limits to what the United States can achieve in Syria.
But while the United States may be low on leverage in Syria, and also seems to have resigned itself to a growing Iranian role in Lebanon, Washington still enjoys strong influence over Iraq.7 Having built most of the Iraqi government from the ground up during its 2003–2011 occupation, the United States remains a major supporter of the Iraqi government—which, among other things, is the third-largest global recipient of U.S. security assistance—and continues to exert powerful influence over politics both in Baghdad and in the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region’s capital, Erbil.8
To the U.S. political establishment, walking away from Iraq seems out of the question. As a major oil producer that also borders Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, Iraq is indisputably more central to U.S. interests in the Middle East than Syria could ever be. In addition, the legacy of the 2003 war still weighs heavily on U.S. political thinking, as do hundreds of billions in sunk costs.
Then, too, there’s the fact that President Trump seems to be itching for a fight with Iran, in which case the U.S. government must hurry to cover its flanks in Iraq. Trump has long said he wants to scrap the 2015 international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, and recently warned that he may do so on May 12, which is also the day of Iraq’s elections.9 His recent firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had argued against destroying the Iran deal, in favor of CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is hawkishly anti-Iranian, and the March 23 appointment of hardliner John Bolton as national security adviser, are widely thought to have made it more likely that Trump will follow through on his threat.10 Should May 12 mark the start of a new round of escalation in U.S.–Iranian relations, what happens on that same day in the Iraqi elections will suddenly gain added significance, since both nations are uniquely well placed to hurt each other in Iraq.
If Iraq looms high on America’s list of priorities, that holds even more true for Iran. To the rulers of Tehran as well as to many ordinary Iranians, Shia-majority Iraq is their own backyard—so close to home that any U.S. presence on Iraqi soil is automatically seen as a national security threat. For Iran, the menacing noises emanating from the White House will seem like all the more reason to seek dominance over its smaller neighbor, in order to preemptively shut down any potential threat from across the border.
History plays a role, too. Forged in the crucible of the devastating Iraqi–Iranian war of 1980–1988, the Shia Islamist government of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is resolutely determined to never again allow the emergence of a hostile government in Baghdad.
Then there’s the regional balance of power. Under Shia-dominated governments after 2003, Iraq’s role has flipped from blocking out Iranian influence in the Arab World to instead facilitate its expansion into Syria and Lebanon, swelling Tehran’s political clout and improving its leverage vis-à-vis Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other longtime enemies. If Tehran has in the past decade shown that it is willing to fight hard to protect its interests in Lebanon and Syria, that’s nothing compared to how far the Iranian leadership would go to maintain its position in Baghdad.
Iran’s perennial rivals among the Gulf Arab States appear to have concluded, like much of Washington, that Syria is probably a lost cause for them, but that Iraq still hangs in the balance. In the view of the Gulf Arab rulers, Iraq could either stabilize as an independent nation with friendly but non-submissive ties to Tehran, which might be bad enough from their point of view, or turn into a proxy that radiates Iranian influence across the Arab World for decades to come, which would be a nightmare scenario for Riyadh and its allies.
Accurate or not, those are the impressions that shape regional stratagems in time for the double deadline on May 12: Trump’s ruling on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the Iraqi elections in which Haider al-Abadi has emerged as the U.S. and Gulf Arab favorite—the man who will help them beat Iran. But will he?
The Centrality of Abadi
Having overseen his country’s triumphant return from near-collapse in 2014 to winning the war over the Islamic State, Abadi is now firmly ensconced at the center of Iraqi politics, and although he is in many ways a weak prime minister, he seems to be finding a role in every regional power’s planning for Iraq.
Western officials portray Abadi as a centrist, stabilizing figure who is by no means hostile to Tehran, but who also will not simply obey its diktat. A pragmatist whose power flows from the institutions of the Iraqi state, he remains, in this view, the best bet for a strong central government that can help Iraq recover and limit Iranian proxy interference down the line.
On the other side of the divide, Iran appears to view Abadi as an unthreatening and often cooperative leader, but not an ideal one. His ties to the United States do not (at least not yet) present much of an obstacle to Iran’s allies in Iraq and can often be complementary to their efforts, even providing cover for them. But Iran has long supported Shia Islamist rivals of Abadi who work both inside and outside of the government, undermining Abadi’s influence and taking pot shots at his cabinet through parliament. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently accused Iran of “mucking around” in the Iraqi elections, trying to sway votes with money.11 Should election results permit it, Tehran may push for Abadi’s replacement with a more pliable candidate come May. If not, the Iranians may settle for working both with and around Abadi, limiting his ability to intervene against Iranian clients in Iraq while also drawing him toward deeper dependence on them.
Part of the American interest in seeing Abadi succeed is due to the ongoing threat from the Islamic State, which continues to launch attacks in the hope of rekindling sectarian mayhem. Even if Abadi portrays the jihadis as a spent force and says the Iraqi Army is “hunting them down in the deserts,” more than 1,000 Iraqis were reportedly killed in the two first months of 2018, and the U.S. intelligence community warns that the Islamic State will pursue underground resistance.12 Paradoxically, if the Islamic State manages to keep Iraq unstable and polarized, the main beneficiaries are likely to be the pro-Iranian Shia hardliners who benefit from weak governance and whose political pitch is to portray Abadi as soft on Sunni rebels.
“There’s no question that some sort of insurgency will try to regroup and carry out revenge attacks against Iraqi forces and civilians, be it ISIS or al-Qaeda,” says Rasha al-Aqeedi, a Mosul-born researcher at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai. “The security vacuum will continue to be exploited by different actors.”13
The other part of the equation, of course, relates to Iran itself, and Iraq’s future relationship with its powerful eastern neighbor. Abadi has made clear that he views Iran as a cherished ally, not an enemy, and that he will not be goaded into joining any sort of anti-Iranian front. “This conflict between the U.S. and Iran goes back years. It has got nothing to do with us,” he recently told Time, adding, “We need the support of both of you. Keep your differences away from Iraq.”14
While that may not be music to American ears, it is par for the course in Iraqi Shia politics, where the main line of dissent is rather to call for a stronger pro-Tehran line. U.S. policymakers seem to recognize that this type of awkward balancing is the best they can hope for, and that Abadi’s pragmatism and his commitment to a middle-ground policy represents Iraq’s safest path back toward stability and regional reintegration.
“I don’t think he is more beholden to Iran than any Shia prime minister would be in similar structural circumstances,” says Colin Kahl, an associate professor at Georgetown University who served as U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in 2009–2011. “The key now will be to see the kind of political coalition he can cobble together ahead of the election. If it is fairly broad and he wins re-election, and the United States sticks with him—all big ifs—he is probably the best hope.”15
Abadi as the Anti-Maliki
Haider al-Abadi may come across as a bland figure to some, but in American and Gulf Arab eyes, at least, he possesses one very striking feature: he isn’t Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister whose controversial 2006–2014 rule continues to shape outside views of Iraqi governance for good and bad.
A fellow Dawa Party member, Maliki was first brought to power on the urging of then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who saw him as a pragmatic, hands-on leader not unduly close to Iran.16 American hopes for centrist strongman rule were swiftly dashed, however, and by 2007, Maliki’s government was seen to evince a “virulent and seemingly intractable sectarianism.”17
Still, after two hapless, flailing years, Maliki did briefly begin to settle into the role intended for him.
In 2008, he led troops into Basra and eastern Baghdad to crush an unruly Shia militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr.18 It was a risky gamble, but it ultimately turned out well for Maliki, leaving both Iraqis and Americans pleased at his apparent even-handedness and enthusiastic over the central state’s reassertion of authority.
Having thus established his strongman credentials and won some broader popularity, Maliki continued to hoard power, using increasingly authoritarian means. When he lost the popular vote in Iraq’s March 2010 elections, he did not gracefully step aside. Instead, he dug in for a record-breaking 249-day impasse over cabinet-formation, eliciting dubious legal rulings from friendly judges and hailing Iran to cobble together a majority of Shia votes for a second term. With the United States on track to withdraw from Iraq, Washington chose—despite considerable internal controversy—not to try to block Maliki’s reappointment.19
NOURI AL MALIKI AND HAIDER AL ABADI FEB 2015. SOURCE: IRAQI PRIME MINISTERS OFFICE.
By the time that Maliki took office for a second term in December 2010, whatever cross-sectarian legitimacy he had assembled after 2008 had frayed and he depended heavily on Iran-backed Islamists and militia chiefs.20 Unnerved by revolts sweeping the region and egged on by Tehran, Maliki then nixed Obama’s half-hearted request to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after December 2011, only to prove incapable of managing the security situation on his own.21 By 2013, his divisive policies had contributed to the rise of a new Sunni protest movement, which, in turn, facilitated the Islamic State’s attempts to rekindle an insurgency from bases in civil-war Syria.
In a climate of surging violence and state dysfunction, Maliki leveraged Shia support and state resources to win reelection in May 2014, but before he had managed to form his new cabinet, the Islamic State seized Mosul and several other cities.22 This proved to be his undoing, as Obama ordered U.S. forces to return to Iraq and mobilized America’s Iraqi allies to block a third term for Maliki. Iran, too, thought Maliki unsuited to lead Iraq’s restoration and pressured him to step aside. By September 2014, Maliki was out and the Iraqi parliament had appointed Haider al-Abadi as Iraq’s new prime minister.23
The job description was clear enough: Abadi had been tapped to provide Iraq with a symbolic fresh start and new, untainted, and unifying leadership—in other words, to be the Anti-Maliki.