Can Iraq’s new prime minister nominee navigate Baghdad’s political chaos?

Iraq's President Barham Salih instructs newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, in Baghdad, Iraq February 1, 2020. The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS

As Iraq continues to face widespread demonstrations and the fallout of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, Iraq’s President Barham Salih nominated a new prime minister on February 1, to succeed Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who announced his resignation on November 29. Salih named Mohammed Tawfik Allawi as his designee for the premiership. Salih has set a deadline for February 1 for Iraq’s parliament to elect a new prime minister, but the body has failed to do so. Allawi was a former communications minister under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Atlantic Council experts respond to the nomination of Mohammed Tawfik Allawi:

Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council:

“Iraqi President Barham Salih officially nominated Mohammed Tawfik Allawi, the former minister of communications, to form a new government nearly two months after the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

“Allawi was short-listed for the job since it became vacant, but his appointment faced resistance from political leaders, particularly former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and leading cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who now both support his nomination. In addition to satisfying the requirements of competing political interests, the new prime minister is also subject to the vociferous demands of the protestors who have clamored for reforms since October. Interestingly, Allawi does not meet the protestors’ emphatic criteria for the next prime minister: no prior political appointments and no dual citizenship. Despite these challenges, Allawi—or President Salih—seems to have secured the approval of key stakeholders to go forward with the nomination, which is long overdue according to the president’s constitutional duty.

“The next task for Allawi is to win the consent from two mutually exclusive spheres of influence inside Iraq: the protesters who forced the resignation of the current government at a high cost with nearly a thousand lives lost and more than twenty thousand wounded and the entrenched political actors who are still unwilling to give up all or part of their extraordinary privileges and take steps to curb corruption. Allawi has to get a majority of votes in the Council of Representatives to be prime minister and must likewise convince the protesters that he is the right man for the job to ensure that their sacrifices were not in vain. While the protesters do not have a formal vote, if they are not satisfied with Allawi, then the demonstrations will only continue and will either render the new government impotent or lead to its collapse.

“In his first address to the Iraqi people, Allawi asked the protesters to continue protesting and chanting until all their demands are met and reforms are implemented. He promised to pass a new law regarding political parties passed, hold snap elections, look into unlawful gains by corrupt officials, restore the authority of security forces, fix the economy, and hold those who killed the protesters accountable. He also vowed to refuse his nomination for the prime minister post if any political blocs try to dictate the selection of ministers in his government. He said earlier that his criteria for a minister is to be qualified by the virtue of his or her integrity and competence, not the strength of his association with a political party.

“Aside from the domestic disputes over the government formation process, we must not forget the influence from key regional actors, particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, whose relations with Iraq are hanging in the balance and will be impacted based on who leads the government. All these actors will exert their utmost efforts to steer the process in their favor. The winners and losers in this competition remain to be seen, but one thing is guaranteed: a zero-sum outcome will only lead to further instability as one of the main demands of the protestors is an end to foreign interference in Iraq’s political affairs.

“The key political leaders who voted to expel US forces from Iraq will withhold their votes for the new prime minister until they get a pledge from the new government to honor the resolution they passed in  on January 5, 2020 that called for an end to the presence of US troops in Iraq and the restructuring of US-Iraqi relations to reduce US influence in Iraq. Allawi will probably receive similar demands by the opponents of Iran to take similar measures.

“Iraq needs balanced relations with all its allies, but this is not likely to happen in the short term given Iraq’s political, economic, and security vulnerabilities. It is very hard for a country to be fully sovereign if it does not produce its energy, grow its food, provide for its security, or enjoy internal political consensus. The new Iraqi government must plan to meet these challenges and many others immediately.

“The United States must carefully calculate its handling of the Iraqi government confirmation process under the current circumstances. Unlike all previous occasions, this time the United States enjoys minimum or no influence at the negotiating table. Throwing US support behind the nominee will severely diminish his chances while continuing the recent public threats to sanction Iraq if US troops are expelled may lead to further estrangement between the United States and Iraq.

“Instead, the United States needs to take trust-rebuilding steps with the future government and pledge credible support for efforts to put the country back on the right path. Treating Prime Minister Allawi (if he is confirmed) as poorly as Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was treated will lead to further tension in the bilateral relations, which are already severely strained. The United States does not enjoy strong backing from its Iraqi friends in the Council of Representatives; therefore, working with the government is the only path available to secure positive bilateral cooperation and mutual interests. As for the Iraqi government, it needs to recognize that US-Iraqi relations are not a one-way street. A negotiated roadmap is needed to lay out a new direction for a stronger partnership.”

Thomas S. Warricknonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council:

“Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi’s nomination as prime minister of Iraq presents both Iran and United States with challenges that will determine whether Iraq stays together as a country under constitutional governance.

“A familiar joke in Washington since the 2003 US liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein has been that Iran plays chess while the United States plays checkers. Mohammed Allawi’s nomination has upped the game: Iran may be playing chess, but a number of Iraqis are now playing three-dimensional chess. It remains to be seen what the United States will do.

“One outcome would recall the apocryphal story of a temperamental grandmaster who, on finding he had lost a game, dashed the chess pieces to the ground, picked up the chessboard, and smashed it over the head of his victorious opponent. That could happen here.

“Allawi was proposed as prime minister by an Iraqi political bloc headed by Hadi al-Ameri, who many in the Trump administration consider too close to Iran. As required by the Iraqi constitution, he was nominated by Iraqi President Barham Salih, well-known in Washington for his years here as the able representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

“Allawi is a deeply religious man with a deserved reputation for integrity. Washington should not confuse him with his cousin Ayad Allawi, who is one of the leading opponents of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Mohammed Allawi has ties to Shia political figures throughout Iraq and the region, including Lebanese Hizballah and Iran, but he lived for many years in the United Kingdom and ran several businesses there. He was elected to the Iraqi parliament under the UN-sponsored 2005 elections, served as communications minister under Nouri al-Maliki, and resigned in 2012 in protest of Maliki’s sectarian policies.

“Allawi will be pressured by both Tehran and Washington to side with them against the other. Instead, he may choose to follow the advice of Iraq’s marja’iyya, the Shia religious leadership in Najaf. A sermon delivered on January 31 in the name of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the new government to gain the confidence of the people—implicitly meaning the protesters who have called for an end to corruption and Iranian influence—and for Iraq to hold snap elections. The marja’iyya also called for the new parliament to address Iraq’s sovereignty. The marja’iyya is signaling that the Iraqi decision about US forces—and, presumably, Iranian forces—should be put off at least until the summer.

“If Allawi forms a new government, he will need to take into account the seriousness of the Trump administration’s statements that if the United States is forced to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, the United States will impose currency restrictions and sanctions that would cripple Iraq. It is hard to see Iraqi Kurdistan or the Sunnis in western Iraq agreeing to live under sanctions that would be worse than Iraq experienced under Saddam Hussein to preserve a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. Iraq could break up or fall into civil war. Only Iran would benefit from continuous conflict in the region—not the United States, and certainly not the Iraqi people.”

C. Anthony Pfaff, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative:

“Mohammed Tawfik Allawi’s nomination as prime minister of Iraq is not likely to significantly change Iraq’s dysfunctional dynamic. Unfortunately, that likely means continued chaos with no end in sight. Iraqis are clearly not happy about the choice as protestors in Baghdad and southern Iraq have expressly rejected him on sectarian grounds. Nor should they be happy. Up to now, Iraq has chosen prime ministers who pose little threat to the status quo and who cannot, or will not, challenge the entrenched interests that continue to stifle Iraq’s recovery. Allawi may be a true Iraqi patriot, but it is unlikely his nomination will address the problems Iraq actually has.

“It does not help that his mandate seems more caretaker than reformer. Tasked with running the government until the next elections, whenever those may be, it is not likely he will have the political capital necessary to even take modest measures necessary to alleviate Iraq’s current crisis. As long as there is corruption, poor security, sectarian politics, and an economy dependent on oil and state-owned enterprises, little will improve. Unfortunately for Allawi, addressing those concerns is not something one person can take on. Not only will it take broad cooperation across every level of government, it will take a willingness on the Iraqi public to forego some of what benefits they have managed to carve out of Iraq’s corrupt system.

“Still, a new prime minister does create new opportunities. It may be possible because of his sectarian associations that he is in a better position to break apart the political stranglehold Iran and its proxies have on Iraq, without inciting further escalation. His first priority, of course, should be to restore stability. To that end, he should immediately end the violent crackdown on protestors. More to the point, he should order the Iran-backed militias to also cease violence against the protestors. If they refuse, expel them from the Popular Mobilization Forces, from which they draw considerable funds, and, if necessary, use the Iraqi Security Services to arrest them.

“Once some semblance of order has been restored, he should reach out the United States and begin discussions on a way forward, not just for military cooperation, but on the range of cooperation and assistance the United States provides. For the United States’ part, it should make clear that this assistance is contingent on Iraq’s pushing back on Iran and its proxies’ efforts to eliminate the US presence in Iraq. Failure to engage the United States will send the message that his government does not have the interest in a continued relationship that is in both parties’ interests.

“Should any of this succeed prior to the next election, he will then have to begin the difficult path to political and economic reform if the cycle of protests is not to repeat itself. This path includes directing government funds away from corrupt and inefficient agencies and towards recovery and reconstruction; investing in major infrastructure improvements, especially energy and transportation; and promoting development of a private sector without destabilizing the state-owned institutions that are Iraq’s biggest employers.

“The United States and its partners, of course, can help with the necessary reforms. But getting that assistance will require finding stable space for a US-Iraq relationship that Iran either accepts or is unable to prevent. There is, unfortunately, no reason for optimism here; however, a few strong steps toward stability and reconciliation will go a long way to putting Iraq on a more constructive path. The alternative is an Iraq as isolated as its neighbor, Iran, with few prospects for the future.”

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