Washington and Tehran don't see eye to eye on many things, but they paved the way for Nouri al-Maliki to become Iraq's prime minister eight years ago and have helped him keep the job ever since. With Iran now joining the United States in calling for Maliki's departure, the embattled Iraqi leader faces a historic choice: peacefully hand the reins to a successor or buck his closest allies and use force to stay in power.
Maliki was an accidental prime minister from the start, with both Washington and Tehran seeing him, in essence, as the best out of an uninspiring field of Shiite candidates for Iraq's top job. Once in office, Maliki skillfully satisfied both of his patrons, impressing many in the United States by using his military to crush one of Iraq's most powerful anti-government militias while simultaneously building goodwill in Iran by consolidating power in Shiite hands at the expense of the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Maliki's support from his patrons has been weakening for months, and on Tuesday, Aug. 12, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's powerful Supreme National Security Council, formally endorsed Iraq's new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, while making clear that Tehran believes Maliki's time in office is over.
"We congratulate Haider al-Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population, and its political groups," Shamkhani said, according to the official IRNA news agency. Iran, Shamkhani said, supports "the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister."
The comments were striking for both their unambiguous message and their source. Shamkhani has close personal ties to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and spent much of his career in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hard-line paramilitary force tasked with ensuring the continued rule of Iran's clerical leadership. That means that Shamkhani was likely speaking for all components of Iran's power structure, from the supreme leader on down.
Tehran dropped Maliki just one day after U.S. President Barack Obama called Abadi to congratulate him on his appointment and to urge him to quickly form a new unity government. In brief public remarks, the president pointedly did not mention Maliki even once -- a snub clearly signaling the White House's strong desire for the hard-line leader to exit the stage.
"Ultimately, Maliki certainly cannot survive as ruler of Iraq without Iranian and U.S. support," said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. "The question of his premiership is not very relevant now; he's no longer prime minister of Iraq, whatever he says."
Michael Eisenstadt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Maliki had lost support inside and outside Iraq, with 38 of the 96 lawmakers in his State of Law bloc backing Abadi just as Washington and Tehran effectively told him to throw in the towel.
"In practical terms, Maliki's fate as a legitimate politician is sealed," Eisenstadt said.
It's far from clear that Maliki will exit gracefully. On Sunday night, he accused Iraq's new president of violating the Iraqi Constitution by giving Abadi first dibs on cobbling together a ruling coalition; a short time later, Maliki followed up those tough words by deploying tanks and soldiers under his direct command to positions around Baghdad's Green Zone. On Tuesday, however, Maliki seemed conciliatory, instructing the military to "stay away from the political crisis."
Even if he steps down, Itani cautioned that Maliki could make life difficult for Iraq's next rulers. Maliki, Itani said, has spent years appointing loyalists to key positions throughout Iraq's government and security organizations. He could emerge as a "pretty powerful de facto militia leader, capable of causing all sorts of headaches for the U.S., Iran, and his Shiite rivals," Itani said.
Eisenstadt, meanwhile, said Maliki could decide that violence is the answer.
"He might try his luck relying on extraconstitutional means -- that is, relying on Army units loyal to him to stay in office," Eisenstadt said. "From his point of view, being a dictator may be better than being a has-been democrat."
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