Shiites on the march.

Photographer: Scott Nelson/Washington Post

Iran Deal Is Shaping the Iraq War

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is taking severe steps to rid himself of his troublesome predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki. On the heels of a government shakeup, the latest move is a parliamentary report blaming Maliki and many of his political and military leaders for the fall of Mosul to Islamic State last summer. The report is going to be referred to a public prosecutor -- which means Abadi may be plotting a criminal prosecution. Maliki is fighting back, issuing a public statement repudiating the report.

Given that Maliki had more domestic support than Abadi when the U.S., with grudging Iranian acquiescence, forced Maliki out of office, it’s no surprise that Abadi would like to consolidate his authority by purging Maliki completely.

But beyond an interest in the Byzantine manipulations of Iraqi politics, why should the rest of the world care about Abadi’s move or Maliki’s displacement?

The answer lies in the effects of the U.S.-Iran deal, which is now before Congress but is being treated by regional actors as a fait accompli. Abadi’s move on Maliki reflects, through a glass darkly, the realignment of regional politics in light of the Iran deal. Where once Maliki was perceived as pro-Iran by Iraqi Sunnis and the U.S., today Abadi is pursuing a new approach in which, he is betting, U.S. and Iranian interests will be closely aligned, and maintaining a multi-sectarian, unified Iraq is no longer an inviolable goal. And the Iranians, having abandoned Maliki to his fate, seem to be on board.

To see what’s going on, consider the challenge that Maliki faced, and failed at, in dealing with Islamic State. The fall of Mosul is emblematic. The Iraqi army, a mixed Shiite-Sunni force, collapsed disastrously, as the parliamentary report emphasizes.

The reason for that failure was more than technical. Shiites in the army might have been loyal to Maliki, but they didn’t relish the idea of dying in defense of the mostly Sunni city. As for Sunnis in the army, they’d become so disillusioned by the impression that Maliki was running Iraq on Iran’s behalf that they were unwilling to stand and fight against Sunni attackers from Islamic State. In the end, the failure to defend Mosul was a failure of Maliki’s leadership, and of his plan to keep Iraq unified under Shiite control.

To be sure, Abadi hasn’t yet done any better than Maliki in resisting the jihadists. In May, under Abadi’s prime ministership, Ramadi fell, just as ignominiously and easily as Mosul the previous year. But Abadi seems to be contemplating a different way of addressing the problem than that adopted by Maliki. His strategy appears to have two prongs, both of them premised on growing U.S.-Iran cooperation.

First, Abadi embraces the deployment of Iranian-trained and -led Shiite militias supported by U.S. air strikes against Islamic State. It’s been a slow process getting the Americans and the Iranians on the same page, given the mutual distrust. But Abadi seems to think, with some reason, that the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal makes cooperation more likely. In June, Abadi went to Iran to urge Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to continue supporting the fight against Islamic State -- and he also went to the G-7 meetings in Austria to lobby Barack Obama for more support. He’s urged the U.S. to do more to train Iraqi army units, and welcomed the deployment of U.S. advisers, who might even coordinate with Iranian-led forces.

It’s optimistic to think that combined U.S. and Iranian efforts would actually defeat Islamic State in Iraq. That can’t be done without Sunni Arab ground troops, and Abadi has no clear way to create such a force.

But Abadi, unlike Maliki, plans to avoid taking the blame if the fight against the jihadists falters -- because he is striving to show both sides, the U.S. and Iran, that he’s trying to get them all to help him in the war. In other words, Abadi, hedging against continuing failure to beat Islamic State, is relying on a deepening alignment of U.S.-Iranian interests.

Abadi has another thing Maliki lacked: a fallback strategy for what to do if Islamic State is here to stay in the medium-term in Iraq. Abadi is signaling to Iraqi Shiites, as well as to Iran and the U.S., that he can govern a rump state of Iraq, one that effectively excludes the jihadist-controlled Sunni areas and recognizes the de facto autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Abadi’s reform efforts of the last few weeks, in which senior Sunni politicians lost their positions, signaled as much. The position of vice-president of which there were three -- including Maliki himself -- was eliminated. The parliamentary report assigning blame for the fall of Mosul named two more prominent Sunni politicians, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the acting defense minister under Maliki, and Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of the Nineveh province and brother of Osama al-Nujaifi, one of the fired vice-presidents.

The message is that Abadi is done with Maliki’s strategy, adopted under intense U.S. pressure, of incorporating Sunni leaders into the central Iraqi government. This change may anger the U.S., since it’s hard to see how else to placate Sunnis and keep them committed to holding the country together. But it makes sense if Iraq is acknowledged as divided already by the presence of Islamic State in the Sunni-majority areas of the country.

In the past, an Iraqi prime minister might have worried about how the U.S. would feel about a Shiite-dominated rump Iraq, which would be something close to an adjunct of Iran. Abadi must be calculating that, having made its own deal with Iran, the U.S. can live with this result as the least-bad outcome -- because it’s less threatened by Iran after the nuclear deal.

The U.S. would like to defeat Islamic State, and we assume Iran would, too. The big change, however, is that the U.S. may no longer be as committed to a multi-denominational, unified Iraq as a buffer against Iran. That’s the result of a regional change – brought about by the nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net