Mustafa al-Kadhimi has assumed the office of prime minister of Iraq with no objections from Iran. This is puzzling. One possible reason might be Iran’s need for cash, which is now so desperate that Tehran has asked the International Monetary Fund for a loan of US$5 billion. Of the countries that Iran controls, Iraq is the only one with a steady – and large – income from its oil sales. Iraq also owes Iran some $3 billion in electricity bills.
Iranian media outlets went out of their way to put a positive spin on Kadhimi’s premiership. They played up a routine congratulatory phone call from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. They even gave a ludicrous explanation of why a giant poster depicting the late Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, and his Iraqi lieutenant, Abu-Mahdi Almohandes, was torn down on the highway connecting Baghdad to the city’s airport (they claimed it was blown down by a very strong wind).
But for all the spin, Kadhimi clearly speaks a language that surely cannot be to Tehran’s liking. In his swearing-in speech and most recently in an article published in Iraqi dailies, Kadhimi has made disbanding pro-Iran militias a central promise of his platform. “Our sovereignty is compromised, our territory turned into a field where other [countries] settle scores,” Kadhimi wrote. “The security of our citizens is threatened, not only by ISIS and its sleeping cells, but also by arms in the hands of non-state actors.”
As a sign of his resolve, Kadhimi ordered government forces to raid the building from where gunfire killed a protester in Basra. A number of militia thugs were apprehended and prosecuted.
The crackdown on militias is not all that the new Iraqi prime minister has in store for the pro-Iran groups known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Kadhimi has said that his second priority, after getting a new electoral law passed, is to regulate political parties. At its core, he says the new rules will make it illegal for any Iraqi political organization to express loyalty to any non-Iraqi entity. Such a law would be the antithesis of political Islam, whose terrorist groups usually comprise cross-border networks of funding, recruitment and propaganda.
This means that Kadhimi not only plans to disband the “armed wings” of the pro-Iran parties, but is also going after the founding principles of many of these Iraqi groups that pledge allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While such parties and their militias might try to block Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister has been trying to tap into popular anger against Iran and its Iraqi protégés.
Iraqi protesters have already set fire to Iranian consulates in the south of the country and torn down and torched posters of Iranian leaders that once decorated Iraqi streets and squares. The popular mood in Iraq is clearly very much against Iran. To win protesters over, Kadhimi has released all political detainees and has promised that government forces will protect any and all street protests. He also promised that the state will investigate the disappearance of activists, and will not allow any attack on the media or freedom of expression.
Most important to the protesters, Kadhimi plans to crack down on corruption and shrink the bureaucracy, which is one of the largest in the world in per capita terms. Kadhimi also has American and regional powers on his side. Washington has already promised him support on many levels, including the technical and political. President Donald Trump immediately granted the new Iraqi cabinet a waiver to continue importing Iranian energy until Baghdad builds up enough capacity to become self-sufficient.
So far, the new prime minister seems too good to be true. Iranian concession also looks suspiciously easy. But Tehran is not known for going down without a fight. Perhaps Iran thinks now is not the time to cut off its last source of hard currency.
Maybe Tehran will lie low until the time is right and then bounce back and start making it impossible for Kadhimi to govern. Be that as it may, Kadhimi is the first Iraqi prime minister who is not under Iran’s thumb, a fact that has caused much optimism inside Washington. He just might be, finally, a horse that the US can bet on. If so, there is much for Iraqis to gain when the empire of militias loses its dominance over them, and they can reap the benefits at last of reconnecting to the global economy.