Climate of opportunity: Iraq’s new government as regional conciliator

Iraq’s new prime minister is well placed to negotiate both the pitfalls of domestic politics and to play a mediating role within the Middle East

This photo provided by Iraqi Parliament Media Office, shows Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a candidate for Iraq’s prime minister position, speaks during the parliamentary session to vote on the new government in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Oct.27, 2022. (Iraqi Parliament Media Office via AP)
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani speaks during the parliamentary session to vote on the new government in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | photo from the Iraqi parliament

Iraq finally has a new government. A little over a year since the parliamentary election and amid ongoing instability and violence, Mohammed al-Sudani – the preferred choice of the largest parliamentary bloc, the Shia Coordination Framework – was sworn in as prime minister last month, alongside 21 of 23 cabinet ministers. Sudani’s agenda centres on fighting corruption, creating economic opportunities, and improving public services. However, given his party’s near total dependence on larger coalition partners, the business of governing will not be straightforward. European policymakers should therefore manage their expectations of how much Iraq’s new government can achieve.

Sudani’s al-Furatain party won only three seats in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament, one of which was his own. But, since prime ministers and members of cabinet are not permitted to hold parliamentary seats, he will relinquish this place. In total, the Coordination Framework controls 138 parliamentary seats. Sudani is therefore highly dependent on his larger coalition partners in this fragile consensus government – even if having a small party in parliament and winning his own seat bestows a credibility on Sudani that his two predecessors lacked. Moreover, he will also have to lead a cabinet that he had minimal input in choosing. Since 2003, the allocation of government roles has taken place under an informal power-sharing system involving Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. This results in political infighting for control of ministries, highlighting the degree to which securing networks of patronage – rather than the implementation of competing visions of governance – remains the key driver of Iraq’s power politics.

This all contributes to the difficulty Sudani will have with pushing his agenda through parliament, especially if it clashes with the plans of his backers. For example, he will face countervailing pressures regarding public employment, since many entrenched political parties view it as a tool of patronage, yet reformists seek to curb its growth. In addition, he will struggle to manage the multiple security institutions that formally fall under his authority as commander in chief.  European and American policymakers alike define statehood partially through the monopoly on violence, which has resulted in a prioritisation of policies that seek to curb the autonomy and influence of Iraq’s many paramilitary groups – particularly those affiliated with Iran. Part of the reason the West favoured Sudani’s predecessor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to such a degree was their perception that he was attempting to confront groups such as these. Sudani’s government programme includes a similar intention to assess the structure of security institutions, as well as strengthen their professionalism and commitment to human rights. However, there is nothing to suggest that Sudani’s government will go beyond lip service to security sector reform.

Iraq’s new prime minister will also have to deal with the Sadrist Movement, which by virtue of being both a political party and a social movement, can play both formal and street politics. The Sadrists won the most seats in the 2021 election, before withdrawing all their MPs from parliament in June this year, frustrated by their inability to form a majority government. They further distanced themselves from power by not negotiating a share of ministries but will likely maintain their bureaucratic positions, such as deputy ministers and directors general. It is unclear whether their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, will turn to street politics to disrupt the dominance of the Coordination Framework and force a new election, to try to form a majority government once more. As the only major political party not involved in the government, the Sadrist Movement is the key known unpredictable factor. It possesses significant mobilisation capacity and will likely attempt to co-opt any organic protests that emerge.

External players will also seek to influence Iraq’s trajectory. Like all Iraq’s premiers, Sudani will have to navigate Iran’s powerful influence over the country. But, unlike many of Iraq’s current political elite, Sudani was not exiled during the Baath regime, and neither cultivated political relations as an exiled opposition figure with Iran nor with the West. Iraqis have long called for a prime minister who was not an exiled opposition figure as they consider former exiles to be at best, out of touch, and at worst, disloyal. Sudani may be relatively little known to the West, but this should not concern Europeans. For instance, his lack of past entanglements with the United States, Britain, or Iran means he should be able to expand Kadhimi’s foreign policy of steadily moving Iraq closer to its regional neighbours, another intention Sudani set out in his programme.

Sudani may be relatively little known to the West, but this should not concern Europeans

European leaders should encourage this policy – and, in particular, the expansion of Iraq’s role as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This could be of significant international importance given the increasing polarisation that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused and the fraying of ties between Washington and Riyadh. Moreover, Sudani’s government seems poised for foreign policy continuity by keeping on Kadhimi’s foreign minister, Fuad Hussein.

The political situation in Iraq is internally and externally fragile, and built on tenuous political alliances. Moreover, the legitimacy of the new government will likely suffer in the face of growing public frustration with the failures of the state to provide basic services. Despite these challenges, implementing reform is not an impossible task. Sudani is an experienced Iraqi politician who is best suited, of the Coordination Framework’s choices, to work with European allies. He should focus on a handful of areas, particularly public services, to be able to deliver some modest success. To assist in this, Europe should continue to provide technical expertise on electricity and renewable energy, since climate change is notably absent from Sudani’s agenda, despite Iraq being one of the countries most at risk of extreme heat events. The new prime minister also needs to learn from his predecessor’s mistake of promising too much and delivering too little. And Sudani should be well placed to do just that, given that he has become prime minister at a time when Iraq is capitalising on higher oil prices, a diminished threat from the Islamic State group, and without the pressures of a global pandemic.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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