Is it time for the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to drop their caution towards the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki and his cabinet, and embrace a neighbour currently emerging from years of tyranny followed by civil strife?
Gulf reservations are understandable. Mr al Maliki was a member of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) parliamentary bloc, the predecessor of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition of Shiite, mainly Islamist, parties. Fearing Iranian dominance over Iraq, Saudi Arabia distanced itself from him.
By the time of the parliamentary elections in December 2005, the UIA consisted mainly of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (ISCI), Mr al Maliki’s Dawa party, its splinter group Dawa Iraq Organisation, and the Fadhilah party. Other groups known for their close ties with Iran, such as Moqtada al Sadr’s candidates and Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraq National Congress (INC), ran independently.
The UIA won the largest number of seats in parliament, and Mr al Maliki was eventually named prime minister in April 2006. But from a weak federal cabinet, the prime minister has proved to be anything but weak. He sent government forces to wipe out al Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. In parallel, Mr al Maliki asserted government control over Iraq’s eastern provinces, in co-operation with local Sunni tribes and American troops. Even with the Kurds, who later became allies, Mr al Maliki did not concede on any independent oil drilling or sale in the north.
Iraq’s prime minister has surprised Iran and its allies. It seems that, in one of its rare lapses, Tehran has not done its homework.
Mr al Maliki is the grandson of Mohamed Hassan Aboul-Mahasen, an activist with the 1920 revolt against the British mandate, and later a government minister. Mr Aboul-Mahasen was an Iraqi patriot, and there is no reason to believe that his grandson thinks Iran should dictate Iraq’s politics. Perhaps the only difference between the two men is that Mr al Maliki understood that participating in the US-sponsored political process was more effective than rebelling against it.
And despite his membership of an Islamist group, there is no evidence to indicate that Dawa endorses Iran’s velayat-e faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent. On the contrary, several academics have suggested that the political thought of Dawa’s founder, Mohamed Baqir al Sadr, was opposed to that of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, despite the friendship between the two during the 1970s.
Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, Dawa’s founder had no illusion that one man could decide all matters of any state; rather he endorsed a supervisory role for an Islamic jurist within a constitutional framework.
Further proof of Mr al Maliki’s patriotism could be detected in the early 1990s, when he and the rest of the Dawa politburo voted to impeach the party’s spiritual leader, Kazem al Haeri, an Iranian known for his support of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic dictatorship. Ayatollah al Haeri later became the sponsor of Moqtada al Sadr and his militia.
While living in Iran from 1982 to 1990, Mr al Maliki might have learnt that similarity in religion was not enough to bring predominantly Shiite Iran – an arguably Persian patriotic and sometimes chauvinistic nation – and the Shiites of Iraq into one state. During the Iran-Iraq in the 1980s, 80 per cent of the Iraqi army and 20 per cent of its officers were Shiite, but felt patriotic enough to fight a neighbouring Shiite state to defend their homeland.
Mr al Maliki’s efforts to assert the power of the federal government in Baghdad have run counter to Iranian ambitions. He has thus lost Iranian support for term renewal so Mr al Maliki and his party left the UIA.
Nevertheless, Iranian officials tried to convince him to stay within the all-Shiite coalition for the 2010 elections. So far, he has turned down that invitation and formed his own ticket, the Coalition of the State of Law, signalling further empowerment for Baghdad at the expense of a possible Shiite federation in the south with Iran as its patron.
Mr al Maliki’s opponents argue that he is just another Iranian operative, and that his confrontation with UIA was all part of a grand Iranian plan. Even if that were true, the prime minister understands that his current leadership depends on his Iraqi nationalist stance. Abandoning that might render him just another INA politician.
Despite the absence of firm opinion-poll data, Mr al Maliki’s coalition seems in a good position to win most seats at the elections in February. In that case, the large Kurdish bloc is expected to swing in favour of renaming him prime minister, and it seems unlikely that his opponents can forge an INA-Sunni alliance to dislodge him.
If the Gulf countries remain distant from Mr al Maliki before the election, it might bring them his animosity afterwards. Instead, these countries should follow in the footsteps of Egypt and the US and embrace him.
Leaving Mr al Maliki out in the cold might simply send him back into Iran’s arms, whether he is elected or not.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a Visiting Fellow with Chatham House, London