The worldwide populist revolt toppling conventional politicians in the United States, Europe and even the Philippines has now reached Iraq. Most Westerners still following Iraqi politics assumed that incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Victory coalition would handily win the parliamentary election, but nope. Abadi's coalition came in third. Firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Sairun coalition came in first.
You remember Moqtada al-Sadr. He's the guy who mounted an Iranian-backed Shia insurgency against the United States, the Iraqi government and his Sunni civilian neighbors between 2003 and 2008. He's a very different person today. He still raises and shakes his fist in the air but today he's shaking it at crooked elites, and he's shaking it at his former Iranian patrons.
"If corrupt (officials) and quotas remain," Sadr declared, "the entire government will be brought down and no one will be exempt." In other words, drain the swamp.
He's Iraq's version of the rabble-rousing populist: fundamentalist, anti-establishment and anti-foreigner. A champion of the working class and a declared enemy of liberal Western ideas. His list even included Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the colorful journalist who famously threw a shoe at President George W. Bush at a press conference in Baghdad in 2008.
He would of course be nowhere without the Westerners he despises. Americans, after all, cleared Saddam Hussein's totalitarian Baath Party regime out of the way and established the election system that put him on top. He'd also be nowhere without Iran. His former allies in the Islamic Republic next door armed his Mahdi Army militia and gave him refuge when the Americans were coming to get him.
Now that the United States is (mostly) gone from Iraq, and now that Iran has been mucking around in Iraqi politics to disastrous effect for more than a decade, Sadr has become as anti-Iranian as he is anti-American. He's not at all happy with a foreign capital using his government as a hand-puppet, whether that foreign capital is Washington, DC, or Tehran.
No need for surprise here. Many in Iraq's large Shia majority feel a natural kinship with the even larger Shia majority in Iran, but ethnic tension between Arabs and Persians has been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for as long as Arabs and Persians have inhabited the region, and nationalist tension between Iran and Iraq has been present throughout Iraq's entire (albeit brief) history as a modern nation-state. Shia Iraqis and Shia Iranians are natural allies, but at the same time, Arab Iraqis and Persian Iranians are natural enemies.
Sadr is painfully reactionary and more than a little bit dangerous. He's also complicated. He is a Shia sectarian whose militia brutally "cleansed" Sunnis from neighborhoods in and around Baghdad but he's also what passes today for an Iraqi nationalist, disavowing violence against all Iraqis and opposing all foreign influence. "We won't allow the Iraqis to be cannon fodder for the wars of others nor be used in proxy wars outside Iraq," says Sadrist movement member Jumah Bahadily of the Syrian civil war.
He also forged an alliance with communists—a horrifying ideological cocktail from the point of view of any liberal-minded Westerner, but alas there are few Jeffersonian democrats in old Mesopotamia. There are however, some secular reformists and technocrats, and they also formed an alliance with the Sadrists. Tehran has taken notice and isn't happy about it. "We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq," says Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khamenei.
Precious few Americans would enjoy living under a government run by Sadrists. Even so, his pushback against Iran is nothing to sniff at. Westerners and Arabs alike have bemoaned Iran's rising influence in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, thanks in large part to Sadr's own Mahdi Army, yet no one is resisting Iranian influence in Iraq as successfully right now as he is. Sure, the Sunni parties are pushing back as they always do, but the Sunnis are a small minority. Nearly all Iranian influence in Iraq comes through the Shias. Only they can successfully resist Tehran because they're the only ones who can enable Tehran in the first place. With Sadr's movement in the saddle, Iran faces the most formidable obstacle in Baghdad since Saddam flitted from palace to palace.
Sadr will not be Iraq's next prime minister. His list won the most votes but he himself did not stand for election. He could be the next kingmaker, so to speak, but even that's not guaranteed. While his party won more seats than the others, it did not win the majority. It's still possible that the others will unite in a coalition against him. Nobody knows yet.
Whatever ends up happening, the main takeaway here ought to be this: Iraq isn't even in the same time zone as high-functioning liberal democracies like New Zealand and France, but we can parse the result and guess at the ultimate outcome of its fourth consecutive election as if it were.
Michael Totten is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum