It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.
Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.
While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.
The Iranian government, for its part, is also in favor of a Barzani presidency. Their reason, according to various Iraqi politicians, is more Machiavellian: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as Tehran’s man in Baghdad (an exaggerated characterization as Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist, but he does listen and consider quite carefully what the Iranians say), then Nechirvan Barzani, currently the prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan, is Iran’s man in Erbil, paying as much deference if not more to Qods Force chief Qasim Suleimani and the other powers that be in Tehran as Maliki does. If Masud Barzani goes to Baghdad, and the Kurds eliminate the presidency in favor of a stronger premiership, then the Islamic Republic figures it’s game, set, match in Iraq, with Masud Barzani shunted off to some honorary position. That U.S. officials also find Nechirvan (and Maliki) professionals seems to suggest that both have the support of the powers whose opinion still counts in Iraq.
Masud is being coy, but he seems to want the job. He is term-limited, and his second term as president should have ended several months ago. He has illegally extended his term to remain president for a couple more years, but that might simply be to wait until the spot formally opens in Baghdad. Certainly, Barzani’s rivals would be glad to have him out of Kurdistan, be it for selfish reasons or because Barzani’s tribal mentality has always held back more progressive forces.
There are problems with such a scenario. It’s bad for Iraq, for it confirms—in the word of one Iraqi official—the transactional nature of Iraqi politics, and sets Iraq down the path of the Lebanon model of confessional (and ethnic) politics. And Barzani does not have Talabani’s talent. He seldom sees the big picture and often exacerbates conflict rather than calms it. Many Sunni Arabs may be upset that they will not achieve the presidency, even if Usama al-Nujayfi wields more power as speaker of parliament. Masud’s eldest son Masrour might also cause trouble if left out: He sees himself as a natural successor to his father, and would object to the far more talented Nechirvan Barzani effectively becoming the kingmaker in Kurdistan.
It’s a game of thrones right now in Iraq, and it looks like Masud Barzani might win the title of which he’s always dreamed, even if the reason has less to do with his individual talents and more to do with others seeking to rise up in his place. While Maliki’s reelection remains uncertain (another sign that Iraq is not the dictatorship some claim; not too many autocrats have to fight for their political lives at the ballot box), Barzani’s new role at this point in time seems a sure thing. Whether the United States is ready for that scenario: well, that’s another question whose answer is far from clear.