"Maliki Is Iran's Man."
Not quite. Iraq's prime minister, stubbornly independent and impetuous, probably causes as many headaches in Tehran as he does in Washington.
True, Maliki lived in Iran for eight years after escaping Iraq in 1979, when the regime wanted him and tens of thousands of other Islamic Dawa Party supporters for arrest and execution. He helped run a military camp in southern Iran where Dawa men trained for their guerrilla war against Saddam. But they constantly clashed with their Iranian hosts over issues of ideology (for one thing, Dawa refused to accept velayat al-faqih, the Iranian model that places government under clerical rule) and tactics. After about a year, Iran evicted Dawa from the camp and gave the compound, as well as money and training, to a more reliable militia under direct Iranian control, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now a political party known as ISCI. That group became Iran's malleable proxy against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and grew strong while Dawa foundered. The double cross still irks Maliki and others within the tight-knit Dawa cadres, people close to the party have told me.
Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq's or his own interests. Associates say Maliki believes, rightly, that the fighters affiliated with militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that took up arms against his government got their weapons from Iran. The prime minister personally led Iraqi forces in fierce battles against them in the spring of 2008 (his security chief was killed when a rocket struck their command center), aided by U.S. troops. Last year, in the approach to the elections, the Iranians pressured Maliki not to split from the main Shiite grouping (with ISCI) and form his own coalition. He did so anyway. Maliki also resisted Iranian arm-twisting in signing the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States in 2008. And, in turn, he used the pretense of Iranian pressure on his cabinet and parliament to get the Americans to agree to tighter deadlines and limits on their troop presence. I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually turns and decides to tolerate a longer U.S. presence just as a counterweight to Iran.
This year, Iran ended up supporting Maliki for prime minister again -- and brokered his latest alliance with Sadr -- probably for the same reason U.S. President Barack Obama's administration belatedly backed Maliki: There weren't any better alternatives. Iran's old ally, ISCI, faired too poorly at the polls to contend for the top spot, and Maliki was better for Iran than secular contender and American friend Ayad Allawi. But when Allawi failed to form a viable coalition, the United States eventually aided the formation of a new Maliki government and thus forestalled the prospect of a potentially destabilizing ninth month of government gridlock.
The Iranians will continue to influence Maliki. They've got close ties with lawmakers around him, some of whom are probably even some on their payroll. They supply weapons to renegade insurgent groups that can still fire rockets at the Green Zone or throw a city into havoc. And they'll use the same soft power that Turkey and other neighbors employ through vast commercial contacts, strong-arm diplomacy, subsidies to some of Iraq's Shiite religious networks, and their shared geography and heritage. But, in general, they use their overall clout in Iraq to control Maliki to a greater extent than they can use Maliki to control Iraq.