What are we to make of the close election results in Iraq? A former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, is a Shiite with humongous support among Sunnis. He emerges with a slight lead in popular votes and two seats in parliament more than the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is also a Shiite, but with virtually no support from Sunnis.
The good news is that both Allawi and Maliki ran as Iraqi nationalists; the bad news is that if Maliki forms the next government, he may have to rely on support from proxies of Iran to form a majority, and be under Tehran’s sway. In the wake of the vote count, Maliki also made vague accusations of fraud and referenced his power as commander in chief, which implies that he might resort to violence to overturn the election.
In the Middle East, there is often a race for the extremes because that is where the soul lies; in the West, there is a race to the center, because that is where the votes are. … Iraq is becoming more like a Western country.
Rejection of violence is important, as dozens were killed in bombings northeast of Baghdad just hours before the release of the official vote tally on Friday.
Still, the voting in Iraq is notably more cheering than the voting in Iran last year. In fact, the two elections remind one of Charles Dickens’ lines in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.” In the springtime for Iraq, a nationalist-secular party that cut across the Sunni-Shiite divide did remarkably well.
But the devil is in the details. Consider the specific results of this month’s election in Iraq: Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya list holds a slight lead over Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition in total popular vote and parliamentary seats. Iraqiya won a plurality of seats, 91, while State of Law finished a close second with 89 seats. Maliki won six of Iraq’s nine southern provinces, with large Shiite majorities; but the alliance led by Allawi won in Iraq’s Sunni provinces and scored surprising gains in the Kurdish north. Neither of these two leading parties can form a government without support from other parties.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite coalition with support from Tehran, came in third with 70 seats. Though the Alliance lost seats, it continues to hold more than enough to play a key role in government formation. Within the Alliance, power is shifting from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to followers of Muqtada al Sadr, who are now likely to play a prominent role, along with Kurdish parties that control 43 seats, in the formation of a coalition government.
In Washington, we judge electoral outcomes according to who is up, who is down, who is in, and who is out. In the aftermath of the Iraqi election, the secular parties are up; the sectarian parties are down. The United States is up; Iran is down. The dream scenario for Washington is that Allawi forms a government of secular Iraqi nationalists who are not indebted to Tehran. The nightmare scenario is that either Maliki resorts to force to overturn the election results or he forms a government that is beholden to proxies of Tehran.
If Allawi heads the next Iraqi government, which will take office this summer, Tehran’s star will decline over Baghdad and Washington’s will rise. Why? Pro-American, secular nationalist parties would be in and pro-Iranian extremist coalitions on the way out. But if Iranian regime proxies deny Allawi the ability to form the next government, it would signal a rerun of the Sunni-Shiite civil war, restart the insurgency against American forces, and delay the United States' planned pullout from Iraq.
The Iraqi election shows that ballots are capable of beating both bullets and boycotts; but the 2009 Iranian election indicates that ballots can be beaten by bullies who steal votes. After that election, Tehran suppressed a population that knew their votes had been stolen.
Similar protests in Ukraine during 2004’s Orange Revolution brought down the fraudulently elected Viktor Yanukovich in favor of reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The Iranian regime has long denounced protests in Iran as an effort to create a Green Revolution supported by the United States.
Protests that took place on the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, on Feb. 11, were expected to be the most powerful illustration yet of the potential for a Green Revolution. But tiny pockets of anti-regime demonstrators were efficiently dispersed by police and dwarfed by crowds of what appeared to be regime supporters. In fact, however, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei coerced reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi into convincing his supporters not to wear green, the ID of the “street revolutionaries.” Unable to identify each other, they fell into a trap, which allowed Ahmadinejad to claim them as his own.
In the Middle East, there is often a race for the extremes because that is where the soul lies; in the West, there is a race to the center, because that is where the votes are. Allawi’s ability to pull Shiites and Sunnis together in a governing coalition would mean that Iraq is becoming more like a Western country, as it moves toward more secular and less sectarian politics.
And as Iraq moves toward centrist politics, President Obama would be on course to withdraw all but a residual force of about 50,000 noncombat troops by August, down from the total of some 96,000 American troops in Iraq today. That would pave the way for a responsible withdrawal of all American forces by the end of 2011.
Raymond Tanter is a former member of the National Security Council staff, personal representative of the secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration (1981-84), and president of the Iran Policy Committee since 2005. His latest book is President Obama and Iraq: Toward a Responsible Troop Drawdown.