A Tale of Two Elections: Changes in Iranian Influence in Iraq & Lebanon
By Christie Maiky & Ramy Jabbour
On May 6th 2018, Lebanese men and women took to the polls and held their first parliamentary elections since 2009, after a delay of nine years. Similarly, on May 12th 2018, Iraqis held their first parliamentary elections since 2014, following the devastations left behind by the rise and fall of ISIS. Consequently, the results of the elections have delivered a clear message for internal and external policy makers on the current public opinion.
Lebanon and Iraq share various common characteristics. The political composition of the two states is somehow similar. Both political systems are based on sectarian power-sharing among different ethno-sectarian groups, which is legitimized through the electoral laws. Moreover, the same kind of sectarian discourse as well as the same alliance strategy, are made by sectarian leaders in both countries. Leaders are no strangers to cross-sectarian alliances in order to grow their bloc and gain more supporters. The main electoral coalitions have been led by the same actors who have dominated the political scene for more than ten years. Nevertheless, in spite many similarities and differences, the comparison seems very informative.
Both supported by Tehran, the Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) organization in Iraq, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have grown a strong following within their own Shiite communities on one hand, and within communities from different sects on the other hand. Consequently, both Iranian-backed PMU and Hezbollah won a high number of seats in each parliament. Indeed, the PMU and Hezbollah have taken on the same behavioral patterns throughout the elections in their respective countries. In both cases, Iran used its impact on elections as an opportunity to expend and further legitimize its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Middle East. That being said, the complex consociational political systems in both countries, as well as the rise of opposing parties following the elections, have proven to challenge the power of the Iranian-backed proxies. Henceforth, one question must be asked: Can Iran be considered as the big winner in Iraq and Lebanon’s elections?
This paper seeks to highlight the Iranian role in Iraq and Lebanon, and analyze the different alliances that have been made across different sects with the PMU groups in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Consequently, this paper will seek to apprehend possible Iranian backed post-elections coalitions and their implications on the future of the Middle East region.
Table 1 PMF and Hezbollah Common Traits
|Popular Mobilization Forces||Hezbollah|
|Believe in the Iranian version of Wilayat Al Fakih (Khamene’I groups)||Believe in the Iranian version of Wilayat Al Fakih|
|Military and political role||Military and political role|
|Boost cause through national pride and sentiments||Boost cause through national pride and sentiments|
|Support from Iran (for some units)||Support from Iran|
|Infiltrating through proxies in the Christian, Kurd, Turkmen, and Sunni communities||Infiltrating through alliances the Christian, Druze, and Sunni communities|
|Protection from ISIS||Protection from Israel/Sunni extremist groups (ISIS and Nusra)|
|Clientalism Strategy||Clientalism strategy|
|Broad post-electoral coalitions to consolidate power||Broad post-electoral coalitions to consolidate power|
Iranian Extensions in Iraq and Lebanon
In response to the existential threat of ISIS, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani issued a historical fatwa for all able-bodied men to enlist in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and help protect their homeland, its people, and the holy shrines from the Sunni extremist groups. Although Sistani’s edict was mainly a tool to balance the rising of ISIS, the outcome has been quite different. Sub-state armed groups emerged under the banner of PMF in response to Ayatollah’s call while others were re-activated after a period of inactivity. It is evident that the PMF had played an essential role in Iraq’s liberation from ISIS. However, the Iranian regime benefited from the momentum to exercise their influence within the PMF. Iranian backed groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) has been engaged in military action outside of Iraq’s borders with other Iran-backed militias and has also fought alongside the Assad regime in Syria. In addition to AAH, Badr organization has historical ties to Iran dating back to the 1980s when it was the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and operated as the Badr Brigade. Moreover, its leader, Hadi al-Ameri, became both the political and military leader of the organization which controls the Ministry of Interior, a hugely significant ministry in Iraqi politics. Other militias in the PMF have benefited from the Iranian support to expand their presence such as Saraya al-Salam, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Saraya al-Khorasani (SK), and others… Even more, Iran’s Hezbollah brand has existed in Iraq since 2003 in the form of Kataib Hezbollah, which fought against American and coalition forces during Iraq’s sectarian strife in 2007. The movement has a near exact copy of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s logo as its flag. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the group’s leaders, was a former advisor to Iran’s Qods Force. Muhandis openly received training and funding from the Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah. He is now the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee for the PMUs in Iraq. The chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee in the Iraqi government is Falih al-Fayyadh, who is also the National Security Adviser.
In analyzing the different PMF groups, it is evident that there are a range of ideological groupings existing within these militias. While many groups are influenced and supported by Iran, other groups such as Abbas Division and Ali al-Akbar Brigade were established in an answer to the Shiite clerical leadership and the Iraqi state to face ISIS threat. Furthermore, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, combines its sectarian nature with nationalistic principles marked by an outspoken and fierce resistance to external influence in Iraq – most notably from both the US and Iran and fighting corruption. To summarize, there are disputes and differences among the different factions in the PMU. The Popular Mobilization Forces can be divided into three main factions: Pro-Khameini, Pro-Sistani, and Pro-Sadr. Even after the Iraq’s liberation from ISIS control, the PMF are still playing an intrinsic military and political role in Iraq. The Fateh electoral alliance for the latest parliamentary elections in Iraq (headed by Hadi El Amiri) was an example of the pro-Iranian PMF groupings’ willingness to build on their military victory, aiming to increase their political presence via the Iranian continuous support.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s steps since its establishment in the 1980s were very similar to the PMF. The Lebanese Shiite militia was formed following a fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khameni to face the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hezbollah was established as a military force aiming at the liberation of Lebanon from the Israeli occupation and diminishing the Western influence. However, Hezbollah struggled with other militias (such as Amal Movement) and entered the political scene through the 1992 parliamentarian elections. While the Iranian regime created several sub-state prototypes in Iraq, the only extension for Tehran in Lebanon was by Hezbollah. Through the Iranian funding, military training and aids, Hezbollah became the most powerful and organized political party in Lebanon as well as a para-military group equating the Lebanese state. Although challenged by the withdrawal of the Syrian armed forces from Lebanon in 2005 and the 2011 Syrian drastic war, Hezbollah increased its political power in Lebanon filling the Syrian regime gap. Thus, the Shiite militia is blocking any potential threatening decision by the government and the parliament. The 7th of May, 2008 invasion of Beirut can be the most significant example of Hezbollah’s dominating role in the Lebanese political scene. Hezbollah’s strategy in Lebanon succeeded in weakening the opposing March 14 alliance. The 2018 parliamentarian elections with a new “proportional law” became an opportunity for Hezbollah and its allies to maximize political power by infiltrating some proportion of the different sects’ representation.
Tehran and their allies in Iraq and Lebanon knew that the sectarian balance in both countries can prevent their political hegemony even if they resisted US and Israeli presence. For this reason, the Iraqi militias and Hezbollah are penetrating the different communities by alliance building and patronage politics.
PMF: From Militarism to Politics
The rise of ISIS and the fight against it proved to be golden opportunity to establish and grow proxy military presence in Iraq. With the war against ISIS coming to an end, Tehran has made significant efforts to turn its military power into political influence. Several Iran PMF groups have formed the Fateh (or Conquest) Alliance and ran in the 2018 elections.
Fateh took advantage of the weak political, social, and economic situation of the state after the battle against ISIS. It made significant efforts to manipulate the vacuum to fit its interests, grow its influence, and gain popularity amongst Iraqis. In return, the government’s attempts to integrate the PMF into the army have been numerous on one hand, and met with large resistance on the other. Some units under the PMF have projected intentions of remaining independent, and have tried to overstep their mandate on several occasions by threatening Abadi’s government of remerging once their units are dismantled. Abadi, nor any other leader, has been able to dismantle the PMF due to their large Shiite supporter base, as well as their acceptance by cross-sectarian groups in Iraq. The volunteers under the PMF are 10 times larger in numbers than Iraqi security forces. The population has voiced disappointment with the Iraqi army, with weakness in the fight against ISIS, and accusations of corruption.
The Conquest Alliance made efforts to increase their military and political influence through cross-sectarian coalitions with members of non-Shiite militias under the umbrella of the PMF. Moreover, PMF backed several groups from different sectarian groups such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Shabak forces and the Babylon Brigades, and some Sunni tribal and political leaders. Not only did the PMF influence different communities through their military support against ISIS, but PMF’s strong support from the government helped them in capturing state institutions in liberated areas. PMF groups have remained and worked to infiltrate in local institutions through Badr’s control of the provincial council of Diyala as well as the Mosul and Ninewah federal police.
The 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq was a great opportunity for the Iran-backed PMF parties to boost their power politically. According to most of the statistics, it was expected that this alliance will expand their parliamentary bloc, thus putting them amongst the top 3 winning lists. The results were somehow close to the pre-elections predictions where PMF gained 47 seats, increasing from the 22 members of Badr Organization and 1 MP from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq since 2014. Moreover, based on the electoral results, Qassem Suleimani has already begun a big coalition initiative which includes the Fateh Alliance, Maliki, and the PUK.
On the other hand, El Sadr’s coalition (Sa’iron) made a big surprise in getting the biggest number of seats. It is well known that Hadi El Amiri is considered the main opponent for Muqtada El Sadr. The positioning of Haider El Abadi, who got the third biggest parliamentarian bloc, will be major factor dictating whether Suleimani will succeed to create the biggest coalition in order to form a pro-Iranian government. In both cases, the pro-Iranian alliance included Fateh alliance and State of Law coalition improved politically and proved to be a main player in the Iraqi politics.
Hezbollah in the Lebanese Domestic Politics
In its early days, Hezbollah was contemptuous of Lebanese politics. A debate between Hezbollah cadres took place directly after the end of the Lebanese civil war whether they should participate in the “corrupt” political system or not. The discussion included whether participation in the 1992 parliamentarian elections in a “non-Islamist” government was legitimate or not. Through the help and patronage of both the Syrian and Iranian regimes, Hezbollah was able to form strategic partnerships with Druze, Christian, Alawite, and Sunni leaders such as Wiam Wahab (Arab Taouhid Party), Sleiman Frangieh (Marada Party), Rifa’t Eid, Omar Karami and Abdul Rahim Murad respectively and others. In addition, the Shiite group benefitted from the remnants of Al Assad allies such as the Baath Party, and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) on numerous occasions, previously through political confrontations, and more recently through coalitions during the parliamentary elections. For example, the SSNP had a major role to assist Hezbollah by invading West Beirut in 2008 through the “Saraya Al Muqawama” burning their opponent’s media outlets such as Future TV. SNNP and Wiam Wahhab’s party admitted their participation in the Syrian civil war by supporting Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
The most ambitious move made by Hezbollah to build cross-sectarian coalitions was through the political agreement signed with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in 2006, at time when the latter formed the biggest Christian party in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leadership fully understood that political parties from other sectarian groups were willing to form pragmatic alliances in order to have a bigger share of power in the government. On the Shiite level, the Syria and Iran regimes were able to lessen the tensions between Amal and Hezbollah by building a strategic political agreement since the early 1990 till nowadays.
Hezbollah sought to take advantage of the 2018 parliamentarian elections. March 8 alliance (Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Marada, SNNP, Baath, Karami…) were unable to acquire a majority in the 2005 and 2009 elections. In 2009, March 8 alliance was able to secure 54 parliamentarian seats out of 128. However, March 14 alliance was not capable to govern due to Hezbollah’s excess power. In 2018 elections, the nature of the alliances changed since Aoun was elected as President in 2016. The axes of March 8 and March 14 that are no longer the main cleavage line in Lebanese politics since the understanding between Aoun and Hariri in the cabinet has formed a major feature of Lebanese politics. Thus, the hardcore March 8 including Hezbollah, Amal, SSNP, Marada, and several independent figures have achieved a main improvement in ensuring one-third of the deputies, enough parliamentary seats to constitute a blocking third in the legislature on major issues requiring two third votes. While the centrist parties (FPM, Mikati, and independent figures) were able to make up together a number of 36 seats. The March 14 (LFP, Future, PSP and Kataeb) gained one third themselves and a total of 48 seats. This clearly shows that the balance along that axis is still there and no one side has won a majority or a control over the parliament. As an analysis for the final results, Hezbollah and allies did improve their numbers from 2009 notably due to the nature of the proportional representation system that allowed its allies notably in the Sunni community to win seats (Tripoli, West Bekaa, Saida, and Beirut). However, Hezbollah and its alliance did not obtain a majority in the Lebanese parliament and remain far from the 64 deputies needed for that. 
Although the pro-Iranian Fateh coalition was capable to boost its political power in the latest elections, it is difficult to claim their control over Iraqi politics. It is very clear that their cross-sectarian networking, in addition to their military successes against ISIS, were key factors for their electoral improvement. Nevertheless, they might face several challenges such as a strong post-elections alliance including Sadr, Abadi, Hakim, Allawi and the KDP on one hand, and the religious factor presented by the Najaf Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and other religious figures opposing the Iranian interpretation of Wilayat al-Faqih on another hand. Additionally, the ethno-sectarian nature of Iraq (similar to Lebanon) will not facilitate Fateh’s coalition goal for political hegemony.
On the military level, the PMF Iranian- allied groups can be considered as the most funded factions by both Iran and the Iraqi government. Moreover, the leader of Badr Organization and the leader of the Hezbollah Brigades are both the de facto responsible of the tactical and political decision-making of the PMF, and may direct operations for the other groups. However, the other PMF groups still have a sort of independency from their command including the Sistani’s affiliated groups and Sadr’s Peace Brigades. The Sistani and Sadr affiliated groups with the help of Iraqi security forces have the ability to balance the Iranian-backed militias in a possible attempt to dominate the military scene in Iraq. In the Sunni, Kurdish and the minority regions, the PMF Iranian affiliated groups stated above have built strong relations with the different militias from other communities while still do not control all the militant forces on the ground. As an example, KDP Peshmerga, Ninewa Plains Force (NPF), Ninewa Plains Guard Force (NPGF), and al-Hashd al-Watani are relevant militant forces working under the umbrella of the KRG or affiliated to Turkey. It is impossible to imagine, with the current status-quo, the integration of the PMF in the Iraqi state institutions even-though a grand Shiite coalition or a technocrat government might govern Iraq in the next years. The PMF will remain a hybrid organization competing for legitimacy vis-à-vis the state. Unlike the last period of state repair in 2008, when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fought against militias, this time, the Iraqi state has legitimized the PMF. The paramilitary groups also remain popular on the ground and have used their fight against ISIS to further their legitimacy. Moreover, several of the groups now control state institutions.
In Lebanon, it is farfetched to expect a government without the presence of Hezbollah and its allies. Since 2005, all the governments in Lebanon were rather including most of the political parties from the two main groupings or at least a March 8 government which was headed by Najib Mikati. Hezbollah and his allies maintained their existence in these governments at least with more than one third of ministers. In that case, Hezbollah and its March 8 alliance was capable of parallelizing any decision that might affect their political and military power. As opposed to the PMF in Iraq, Hezbollah is not included within the official Lebanese military forces. However, their presence is more-or-less legitimized through their mention as “resistance forces” in the consecutive government statements. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Hezbollah can easily consider a potential military control over Lebanon, since this will certainly lead to a brutal civil war and the emergence of militias from other sectarian groups.
On the regional level, it is important to indicate that KSA may see the victory of Sadr to improve its relations with Iraq and try to diminish the Iranian role. The previous visit of Sadr to Riyadh and his meeting with Prince Mohammad Bin Salman are indicators for the progress of Saudi’s role in Iraq. However, it is difficult to expect effective Saudi policies in the meantime due to its previous absence from Iraqi politics as opposed to Iran. In Lebanon, several indicators are showing the Riyadh is still closely monitoring the political situation and even playing a major role at certain levels. On the other hand, Iran and its proxies will have to closely assess the current situations in Lebanon and Iraq especially after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. It is absurd for the Iranian opponents to expect a quick containment for Tehran’s power in both Iraq and Lebanon. The Islamic state of Iran invested politically, economically, and militarily in Lebanon and Iraq in a time of political void.
On the international level, USA is in an awkward position in Iraq due to its previously tense relation with Sadr. After Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and the new sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime, it is difficult for the US leadership to neglect Sadr as a possible partner in post-election government. The US should certainly negotiate with Sadr directly or indirectly. USA and KSA can benefit from the growing influence of Sadr in order to encourage him to form a cross-sectarian alliance with other political actors in the aim of balancing the Iranian hegemony in Iraq. In Lebanon, the US-Gulf sanctions against Hezbollah and their harsh policies against the Iranian axis may complicate the formation of a unity government than includes Hezbollah. It is highly expected that the government formation in both Iraq and mainly Lebanon will be extremely difficult due to the above mentioned changes.
In conclusion, in Iraq, Muqtada Al Sadr has shown increasing efforts to create a technocratic government, or a majority government including Allawi, Abadi, Hakim, KDP, and other forces. However, Sadr will be facing a major challenge if the government formed excludes the State of Law and Fateh coalitions. In that case, countering the PMF’s presence and Iranian influence politically will be difficult, as the groups have significant political, economic, and institutionalized military leverage. In addition, even though the PMF’s funding comes directly from a decision by the Prime Minister, it does not mean that the latter has the power to cut it off. A long-term US and KSA plan is needed to counter the Iranian influence by forming alliances with different political actors. By neglecting the Iraqi portfolio, the two countries will be leaving Iraq in Iranian hands. As a reaction to US sanctions, Iran may use Iraq as a proxy state to challenge the US policies.
In Lebanon, it is expected that a unitary government will be formed including all the major political parties. Hezbollah is likely to invest its military gains in Syria in Lebanese politics before the US-sanctions targeted towards it and Iran tighten. It is unlikely that the US and Saudi stance toward Lebanon will affect the balance of power in the coming years. Only a major change in Iranian domestic politics or in the Syrian civil war can change the outlook. In the meantime supporting and empowering Hariri and encouraging him to reunite with the old allies will definitely balance the management of the daily affairs and preserve the minimum semblance of a functioning state.
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 The March 8 alliance is a coalition of various political parties in Lebanon. The name dates back to 8 March 2005 when different parties called for a mass demonstration in downtown Beirut in response to the Cedar Revolution. The demonstration thanked Syria for helping stop the Lebanese Civil War and the aid in stabilising Lebanon and supporting the Lebanese resistance to the Israeli occupation
 The March 14 alliance is a coalition named after the date of the Cedar revolution, is a coalition of parties and independents from Lebanon that united by their anti-Syrian-regime stance
 MEIRSS. (2018), Lebanon Special Report on the Parliamentary Elections, retrieved from: http://meirss.org/lebanon-special-report-parliamentary-elections/#_ftn1
 Received training by Turkey: O’Driscoll and van Zoonen, Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraq
 Horavath, Andras. Gatson,E. Saleh,B. (2017). Who’s Who: Quick Facts about Local and Sub-State Forces, Global Public Policy Institute, retrieved from: http://www.gppi.net/publications/quick-facts-about-local-and-sub-state-forces/#c2184
 Including Sadr, Hakim, and Abadi
 Mansour, R. (2018). The Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Balancing of Formal and Informal Power, The London School of Economics and Political Science, retrieved from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2018/03/15/the-popular-mobilisation-forces-and-the-balancing-of-formal-and-informal-power/