The March 7 parliamentary elections have heralded a new era for Iraq, pushing aside the incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki and officials with ties to Iran while opening way for a new slate of politicians hoping to mend serious sectarian divides. But, as a U.S. military official in Iraq told the Washington Post, Maliki and his allies "have no intention of giving up their regime," something that could threaten the hard earned post-election gains for progress and stability and harm US troops withdrawal timetable.
"These are people who were exiled and who've risen to power almost overnight because we brought them back to power," the official was quoted as saying. "Now they're going to lose that relative lock on power through these elections," which explains the Maliki bloc's frantic reaction to its defeat.
With the Iraqiya coalition declared as the winner of the March 7 vote, arduous talks are now under way to form a new government. The triumph of the cross-sectarian and nationalist Iraqiya list, headed by former PM Ayad Allawi, represents a major threat to the ambitious agenda of the regime in neighboring Iran.
Mr. Allawi and his allies managed to win the most votes, overcoming monumental political and security obstacles and thwarting Iran's bag of dirty tricks, while displaying surprising resilience and strength. Tehran will no doubt heighten its already extensive interference in a bid to rob Iraqis of their electoral choices and engineer a surrogate government in Baghdad.
Still, regardless of which political blocks will ultimately succeed in forming the next government, the Iranian regime and its Iraqi allies have been dealt a strategic blow as Iraq takes small and fragile steps toward a pluralistic democracy. Iran's state-run media are lamenting the "lost opportunity," launching a disinformation campaign to tarnish the historic electoral performance of the nationalist and non-sectarian political forces.
The defeat of the pro-Tehran Shiite groups in no way signals rising sectarian politics and a Sunni resurgence, as some suggest. Far from it, this was a definitive victory for nationalism and secularism -- for Shiites and Sunnis alike.
The Iraqiya block is made up of Shiites and Sunnis, and offered an anti-sectarian platform welcomed by Iraqis of all stripes. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, al-Maliki's State of Law bloc tried unsuccessfully to portray itself as a nationalist alternative, ready to change from its sectarian, Tehran-friendly politics of the past four years.
Behind the scene, however, al-Maliki did his utmost to do Tehran's bidding and his emissaries were constantly pacing back and forth between the two capitals. At Tehran's bidding, for example, he laid siege to Camp Ashraf, residence of several thousand Iranian dissidents, members of Iran's main opposition People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK). In July this culminated in a deadly assault on the unarmed camp, causing eleven deaths and injuring 500.
Al-Maliki's clout as incumbent prime minister also gave him unrivaled opportunity to woo influential groups through political and economic incentives.
In the end, however, his ties with Tehran were too extensive to be cloaked with his newly-found ostensible affection for a secular, nationalist agenda. He underestimated how deeply Tehran and its surrogates, after years of bloodshed and meddling, are loathed by Iraq's people.
The disillusionment with the dominant Shiite blocks that effectively acted as Tehran's clients was glaring, nowhere more than the Shiite neighborhoods. The estimated 60 percent increase in Sunni voters and nearly 18% decline in overall voter participation, denote a whopping decrease in the Shiite turnout.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its extraterritorial arm, Qods Force had marshaled all their financial, political, and security forces to hijack the March 7 elections. They pumped tens of millions of dollars monthly into the country, assassinated secular Iraqis, and used the Justice and Accountability Commission, to disqualify hundreds of unyielding politicians from running.
The Washington Post's David Ignatius reported that according to a de-classified intelligence document: "Iran supports de-Baathification efforts engineered by Ahmed Chalabi for the purpose of eliminating potential obstacles to Iranian influence. Chalabi is also interested in Iran's assistance in securing the office of prime minister."
In the end, Iraq's nationalism defeated Tehran's meddling. Nevertheless, one must remain increasingly vigilant. Although dealt a heavy blow, the ayatollahs' regime is still not willing to lose the "Iraq opportunity." Iraqi surrogates and friends have been invited to Tehran to coordinate plans set in motion for the post-election phase.
A state-run news site in Iran, Khabar Online, recently wrote: "Iran plays an important role in determining the next prime minister of Iraq, and anyone occupying this post must have a positive view of Tehran."
For years, Tehran has declared its intention to fill the vacuum when US forces leave Iraq. The March 7 elections were critical to this strategy. Building on the homegrown foundations which pulled the rug out from under the ayatollahs, Iraq's people must deny Iran's rulers the chance to once again plunge Iraq into sectarian strife. The stakes are high and America's attempts to leave Iraq in peace and stability next year depends on it.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of "The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis" (Palgrave MacMillan).