Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.
Since the Sunnis and Kurds have abandoned parliament, one part of the fence is that they are out of the picture. The other part comes as the answer to the question, “Who is left who cares?”, to which the glaring answer is, Shiite factions, who remain a shifting cloud of alliances that is hard to see into with open sources.
But the swirling cloud has a useful fence. Iran has three distinct presences: the IRG, which supports the “legitimate government” of Iraq, the Qom religious establishment, and the Mahdi Army. Each is tasked with accessing a different part of the Shiite spectrum.
The roots of the Mahdi Army are the poor underclass of Baghdad, providing an easily manipulable paramilitary tool. The Mahdi army was formerly sponsored by the Qom religious establishment, but appears to have been spun off in February, when “firebrand cleric” Muqtadā al-Ṣadr disowned it in a handwritten note. No amount of cynicism can be excessive here; al-Sadr may have been touchingly concerned about the elderly Sistani’s health, and whether his own contamination by worldly affairs would allow him to ascend the clerical hierarchy. But with levers of power having shifted in a more muscular direction, al-Sadr is back.
The inertia of coherent groups with shared interests provides some degree of predictability. One has to be careful with individuals. Even those who appear to be rigid can make sudden reversals. Others are perpetual ciphers. The general drive of self-interest always plays a part. But since the prize is not a pot of gold, which can be a solitary enjoyment, but power over others, self-interest is not easily defined either.
The sophistication of the Iranian approach, of appealing to multiple blocs with differently authored approaches, is impressive. The Iranians have been out thinking U.S. policy makers for years. Maliki, who is “not a cleric”, has a hand-tailored Iranian interface designed just for him, the IRG.
Let’s paint a picture, and see how it holds together:
1. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest ranking cleric, wants a new government. Since the main problem with the present government is with other factions, this suggests he wants a “big Iraq.” His self interest could be that, while he is a big religious authority in a small country, his influence would be diluted by the large religious establishment of Iran. It would be a simplistic error to assume he is not motivated by good will. But the external result is the same.
2. The rumors that Maliki’s election was the result of Iranian pressure have been persistent. If he is a puppet, there are all degrees of puppetry, ranging from a long term money maker like Charley McCarthy to the the merely idolatrous Castro. Maliki’s policies toward the Sunnis and Kurds, which seem almost purposely designed to make Iraq fall apart, may have been inspired by Iranian influence, or the desire to disengage/marginalize/subjugate the Sunnis. As the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies.
3. The Mahdi Army, which is clearly an Iranian proxy, has been reactivated, in the sense that the Qom religious establishment has decided to give it a push. While none of the Shiite factions, or any factions in Iraq, adhere to what we call fair play, the Mahdi Army is something like the Paris Mob of the French Revolution.
An interesting analogy with Ukraine presents. Vladimir Putin, an intelligent man, is aware that absorption of a country with hostile elements imports instability. The Iranians, also intelligent, are aware that absorption of the whole of Iraq presents the same problem. It appears they want to peel off the bottom. Given the sophistication of their strategies, they seem likely to succeed. It will have a little wrapping on it to avoid the stigma of annexation.