Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won approval for a new government on December 21, 2010 giving him a second term in office, despite his bloc’s loss to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s rival alliance in the March 7 parliamentary election.  In 2014, a new vote will take place in Iraq.  It is important to analyze some of the corresponding lessons obtained from observing the election in 2010, when U.S. foreign policy had to interact simultaneously with Iranian and Saudi competing regional policies to preserve a much needed stability in Iraq while American troops were pulling out of the country.

Because the majority of the Iraqi population is Shiite, the United States in 2010 was looking for a moderate Shiite leader who can be accepted by Iraqi Shiites (because he is Shiite) and by the Sunni minority as well (because he is moderate).  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki represented that Iraqi figure to the Americans.  They saw in him a person that they know and a leader who might be able to promote an inclusive Iraqi national identity.  Therefore, the United States supported his bid to stay for four more years in office.

The Iranians, too, supported the same bid of al-Maliki.  As an Islamic republic, Iran was looking for an Iraqi Islamic leader; and as a Shiite state, Iran was looking for an Iraqi Shiite figure that the Iranians themselves know well; a one from the Iraqi Shiite Islamic parties that Iran has been dealing with since the 1980s.  Al-Maliki was that figure for the Iranians.  They saw in him a leader who would promote Iraq’s Shiite Islamic identity.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, supported former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s bid in 2010 to get back to office for four years.  The Saudis also knew that the majority of Iraq’s population is Shiite, and believed the prime minister of Iraq had to be Shiite for that reason.  Although Allawi, too, is secular, he is Shiite and opposes Iran’s policies towards Iraq, showing a clear leaning towards Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

To avoid instability in Iraq just a year before withdrawing U.S. troops, the United States supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid backed by Iran to stay in the top job.  This was an odd situation in the relationship between the United States and Iran.  Governments of both countries wanted al-Maliki to remain in the position of Iraq’s premier for four more years; however, the Americans and the Iranians saw totally different things in what al-Maliki might represent in terms of interests in Iraq.

To a lesser extent, however, the Americans wanted to satisfy their Saudi ally.  They wanted former Iraqi Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who had the backing of Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s Sunnis, to have some power.  The plan was to put Allawi in charge of a new Iraqi national security council that would set and review policy on security, national budget, and oil exports.

Regardless, Iranian and U.S. support for al-Maliki suddenly put the two rivals in the same camp of foreign policies, but that did not mean Iran and the U.S. ultimately had similar goals, despite that the person of al-Maliki was relevant to both Iran and the United States.  What was important to the Iranians was that the prime minister of Iraq should be a Shiite leader they know and a Shiite figure from the Shiite Islamic parties they once sponsored, and what was important to the Americans was that they accepted such a person because they know him and they thought he is a unifier who might give the Saudi-backed Allawi a real, concrete, and material sense of power that was extremely important to preserve stability in Iraq while U.S. troops were pulling out of the country.

Nevertheless, the Iranian foreign policy seems to be the winner of this competition, because the U.S. plan to establish the Supreme Council for Strategic Policies for Allawi has never been executed.