By John Hannah
March 25, 2020
The March 17 nomination of Adnan al-Zurfi as Iraq’s prime minister-designate highlights the extent to which Iran’s stranglehold on Iraqi politics could be eroding. As such, Zurfi’s nomination holds out both the promise of a restoration of Iraqi sovereignty that aligns with U.S. interests, as well as the danger of escalating violence by an Iranian regime desperate to prevent such a strategic defeat.
Zurfi’s nomination by Iraqi President Barham Salih came on the heels of the failed effort of Mohammed Allawi earlier this month to replace the caretaker government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Abdul-Mahdi was forced to resign in late November under pressure from a mass protest movement demanding an overhaul of Iraq’s post-2003 political system.
Allawi’s February 1 nomination was almost entirely engineered by Iran, operating in conjunction with its Iraqi allies and Lebanese Hezbollah. It reflected a concerted effort by the Islamic Republic to shore up its position in the face of two fundamental challenges: first, the January 3 U.S. drone strike that killed both Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Iranian strategy in Iraq since 2003, and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, Soleimani’s most powerful Iraqi agent; and second, the anti-government protests that have roiled Iraq since October, centered in the country’s Shiite heartland and propounding a distinctly nationalist narrative deeply resentful of Iranian interference.
Allawi’s failure to gain parliamentary approval marked a profound defeat for Iran. A surge in violence against protesters, ordered by extremist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (eager to prove himself as Iran’s new post-Soleimani enforcer), only bolstered the protest movement’s unambiguous rejection of Allawi. Sadr’s efforts to intimidate Kurdish and Sunni politicians into providing a parliamentary quorum for Allawi’s appointment also cratered.
Scrambling to recover, Iran dispatched the head of its national security council, Ali Shamkhani, to Baghdad on March 7 to press Iraq’s leading Islamist parties (the so-called Shiite House) to unite behind a new candidate. But to no avail. In the wake of Soleimani’s death and the collapse of Allawi’s nomination, divisions within the Shiite House only accelerated, preventing it from putting forward a new prime minister-designate by a March 17 deadline. No doubt sensing the signs of faltering Iranian clout, the pro-Western Salih stepped into the vacuum and exercised his constitutional authority to put forward a candidate of his own choosing: Zurfi.
It was a bold move. Zurfi, a Shiite, is widely viewed as pro-American in his sympathies. He spent more than a decade living in exile in the United States and holds dual U.S. citizenship. He returned to Iraq in 2003 with U.S. forces and was quickly appointed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to serve as governor of Najaf province. After a stint working in Iraqi intelligence, Zurfi was twice elected as Najaf’s governor, where he earned a reputation as an aggressive administrator who delivered large-scale reconstruction while antagonizing Islamist parties that smeared him with corruption allegations. In 2018, Zurfi was elected to parliament as a member of the U.S.-supported list headed by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Not surprisingly, Zurfi’s appointment has elicited fierce opposition from many of Iran’s most important Iraqi allies, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri. The full panoply of Iran-backed Iraqi militias has also targeted Zurfi’s nomination as an American plot that will not stand.
In contrast, the protest movement’s reaction to Zurfi has been far more muted and ambiguous than it was for Allawi (perhaps also a function of its increased dispersal in the face of the coronavirus crisis), while Kurdish, Sunni, and more independently-minded Shiite politicians have been favorably disposed.
The threats by Iran’s allies to derail Zurfi’s candidacy should be taken seriously. The ascendance of a genuine nationalist like Zurfi determined to restore Iraqi sovereignty, undermine militia power, and prioritize relations with the West would be one of the Iranian regime’s worst nightmares. Iran and its proxies will likely spare no effort to defeat him, whatever the cost to Iraq and despite the fact that Iran itself is now being ravaged by the coronavirus.
Already, in the days leading up to Zurfi’s nomination, Iraqi militias targeted U.S. troops and diplomats in multiple rocket attacks, a significant escalation of their efforts to force an American withdrawal and claim some semblance of strategic victory for Iran. Efforts to intimidate, blackmail, and, if necessary, violently attack those supportive of Zurfi’s candidacy – including Zurfi himself – are not only possible, but likely.
The Trump administration should understand that Zurfi’s nomination is a sign that Iran is now on the defensive in Iraq. This situation carries great dangers of violent escalation as Iran flails to reassert its dominant position, but also offers a strategic opportunity. Whether Washington has the bandwidth to take advantage as it rightly focuses on America’s own coronavirus crisis is an open question – a fact that no doubt gives Iran great heart.
Of course, if pro-Iranian militias continue to escalate their targeting of U.S. personnel, the administration will have little choice but to respond in some fashion. It should err on the side of strength, not restraint. Prominent militia leaders should be targeted a la the Soleimani strike. Sanctions should be imposed on Iran’s most prominent allies, particularly Maliki and his corrupt relatives as well as Amiri and Sadr.
Making clear that Iran’s proxies will pay a painful price for their aggression offers the best means not only of deterring further attacks on Americans, but also of keeping the pro-Iran camp on the defensive while exacerbating its divisions. The fact that it would also weaken the forces that now have a bullseye on Zurfi’s candidacy would be an added benefit, albeit one of potentially great strategic consequence for both Iraq and U.S. interests.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies