Contrary to Some Journalistic Snap Judgments, the Iraqi Elections Were Not a Victory for a Theocracy Controlled by Iran


Feb 20, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 20, 2005.

The final results of the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections were certified Thursday and contained no surprises — the Shiite slate of parties won a large plurality of the votes, with the Kurds making a strong showing.

The headlines after the preliminary election returns were reported said the winners of the Iraq elections were allied with Iran, and news programs were full of elected officials and experts warning about Iran and an impending theocracy in Iraq.

This is misleading.

I spent the first half of 2004 as the Coalition Provisional Authority official responsible for disbanding Iraqi militias. Here are some observations and perspectives that come from my many meetings with the leaders of these parties and their military arms.

First, these major parties fought against Saddam Hussein for decades because he terrorized them and their families, not because they were Iranian allies.

For many of them the choices were stark — leave Iraq or die. For the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the northeast of the country, Iran was the only safe haven. Neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia would have accepted the Shiites in the south, nor would Turkey have accepted the Kurds.

Next, the Shiite party that won the largest share of the votes (48 percent) is not the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party with close ties to Iran, but a composite slate of Shiite representatives from secular as well as religious parties.

SCIRI is the first party listed in this slate, but only one of a spectrum of parties that includes the oldest Shiite religious party, Da'wa, and SCIRI's major competitor. These other Shiite parties will contend with SCIRI for control of the government. Look initially for cooperation among the Shiites, followed by internal struggles as they grow more accustomed to power.

Furthermore, many from Da'wa and others parties stayed (and died) in Iraq during the long struggle with Saddam Hussein. As a result, a large number of Iraqis view them as true heroes and the expatriate parties (including SCIRI) as less worthy of support. Many Iraqis mistrust SCIRI for exactly the same reason that some Americans do — because of its Iranian affiliations.

The interaction of the religious and political forces at work in the Shiite slate are difficult for Americans to understand. But two things are clear.

No major Iraqi Shiite leader other than Moqtada al-Sadr (whose party is not part of this slate) supports an Iranian style theocracy — and all parties say they want an inclusive process and outcome.

This makes good sense. The Iranian-style theocracy is a departure from Shiite tradition that was initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Islamic revolution.

Furthermore, there is a major theological and political struggle going on between Najaf (in Iraq) and Qom (in Iran) for recognition as the center of Shiite learning and authority — a matter of significant importance in Shiite Islam.

Iraqi and Iranian religious and political leaders each have a lot at stake in this struggle. Adopting the teachings of Qom (in this case theocratic government) would not be in the Iraqi leaders' best interests.

Furthermore, having lived through a totalitarian regime in Iraq and seen a theocracy in Iran, it is quite possible that these religious parties do not want either established in Iraq.

An Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq is not likely, though a government guided by the tenets of Islam is.

Finally, SCIRI may not be the Iranian boogeyman that some make it out to be.

Despite sponsorship by Tehran, SCIRI's vision — or at least that part they shared with me — was relatively liberal. It was inclusive of all Iraqis and would make illegal the party militias that now plague Iraq. These goals fit well with those of the United States.

The inevitable question is: Should America believe them?

The U.S. government need not answer this, but rather should take them at their word and hold them to it. The apparent contradiction between SCIRI's Iranian roots and reasonable policies should not overly vex us.

Turning to the Kurds, the assertion made by some journalists that they are somehow in Tehran's pocket is simply absurd.

Iraqi Kurdistan is secular, quasi-democratic, wants a modern economy and is pro-American. This is the only sector of Iraq in which opinion polls regularly show widespread support for the United States.

Kurdish soldiers, called peshmerga, fought alongside American GIs in U.S. attacks against Saddam Hussein and have played a major role in fighting the insurgents.

Kurdish politicians have been absolutely supportive of U.S. efforts in Iraq. America could not hope for a closer alignment of ideals and interests in the Middle East than it has with the Kurds.

In all of this, the great question mark is the Sunnis. How they react to losing political power and economic advantage enjoyed for some 80 years remains to be seen.

However, the Sunni-Shiite divide (or any Iraqi divide) is not as wide in practical life as news reports indicate. In many areas, Sunni and Shiite live together, belong to the same tribes and intermarry. It is on the political and radically religious levels that there are problems.

What of Iraq's relations with Iran under the new government?

Tensions, such as those between Najaf and Qom, as well as lingering resentment from the Iran-Iraq war, color domestic politics and policy on both sides of the border. Furthermore, if Iraq succeeds in developing a reasonably democratic and economically viable state, this will pose a threat to Iranian theocracy.

Iraq will most likely have good relations with Iran and will not become a client state.

We should also recognize that this government will not be in power for long. Its primary purpose is to write a constitution that is acceptable to all Iraqis. This should now be the focus of attention.

How that constitutional convention plays out will be critical to the Middle East and American interests in it. If it produces a document as wise as the interim constitution agreed to by all Iraqi parties in March 2004, it will be an amazing success.

Two things should jump out at us as positive developments from the elections.

First, the elections brought to power those who by any reasonable democratic measure ought to be in power. America should applaud this and work to make sure that a democratic tradition takes hold. This should be our most important strategic goal in Iraq.

On the tactical level, should this hopeful view of Iraq's future come to pass, a good relationship with an Iraq that has good relations with Iran could be an important diplomatic development in the Middle East. America should be pleased if Baghdad works well with Tehran, so long as they also work well with the United States.

Will things turn out well in Iraq? Here are some practical things to watch for:

Does the constitutional convention include adequate numbers of representatives from all factions? If not, then look for long-term problems over the legitimacy of the government. There is reason to believe the convention will be representative.

In the constitution (to be completed by August and ratified in October):

Are democracy and human rights, to include freedom of religious practice, protected in law and fact? If not, this hints at theocracy. If Iraqis follow the same path they took with the interim constitution, rights will be enumerated and protected.

Is the federal structure of government, currently a component of the interim constitution, made permanent? If not, then the Kurds will almost certainly secede and civil war will follow. All understand this is necessary for peace so it will be included in the constitution. Problems may occur later if Arab nationalism again raises its head.

In the exercise of government:

Are the security forces being remade to resemble party armed forces? If so, this is a precursor to a one-party system and democracy is likely dead. Some restructuring will happen, but the question is to what degree. Internal divisions among the Shiite and Kurdish military prowess will keep any one party from taking control. Yet, this is a potentially large problem.

Is real economic progress being made and are opportunities equitable throughout the country? Some disparities are inevitable, but if they are the result of unfair policies look for continuing unrest. This will require continued political and economic engagement from the developed world.

The gloomy view provided by experts and news analysts is misleading. The glass is half-full.

Terrence K. Kelly is a senior researcher in the Pittsburgh office of RAND Corp. He served as the director for Militia Transition and Reintegration for the Coalition Provisional Authority for the first half of 2004. He is a retired Army officer who served on the White House staffs of Presidents Clinton and Bush and as a White House Fellow.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.