The very fact that the populist Muqtada al-Sadr achieved electoral victory on an anti-Iranian ticket, should serve as a warning to Soleimani and Tehran.
Everyone knows what “sore loser” means but perhaps it’s less easy to comprehend such a thing as a “bad winner,” someone who is foolishly unsportsmanlike after victory.
Here’s a good example of a bad winner. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the extraterritorial al-Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He has been gloating about the results of the parliamentary elections in Iraq and Lebanon in an undiplomatic fashion.
This is unwise. Such commentary tarnishes Iran’s reputation, unifies Iran’s adversaries and severely restricts the political manoeuvrability of Tehran’s Shia allies in the Arab world.
Consider some of Soleimani’s remarks.
Addressing the Sarallah IRGC force in his native Kerman on June 8, Soleimani said: “The [May 6] election in Lebanon was a referendum. It took place at a time when everyone was accusing Hezbollah of meddling in the affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the rest of the region.”
He continued with an attack on Saudi Arabia: “This election took place under the ruinous (influence) of $200 million spent by Saudi Arabia… They called everyone a mercenary of Iran’s. The result? For the first time, Hezbollah managed to win 74 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah morphed from the ‘Party of the Resistance’ to the ‘Government of the Resistance’.”
Towards the end of his speech, Soleimani turned to Iraq. He said the new administration in Baghdad would be “the government closest to the Islamic government in Iran.”
Soleimani’s speech may have heartened Kerman, which probably cheers its local hero. However, what may be useful for domestic consumption does not necessarily enhance Tehran’s interests abroad, and Soleimani’s comments drew a harsh rebuke in parts of the Arab world.
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said that al-Quds Force commander’s remarks were “regrettable.” He added that interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs is “not in their [Iran’s] interest, nor those of Lebanon or the region.” The Lebanese response was entirely understandable. After all, Hariri must manage a very difficult balancing game between great regional powers.
Soleimani’s comments also forced Hezbollah’s allies to distance themselves from Tehran. Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement, a party overwhelmingly supported by Christians and a small number of Shia Muslims, responded brusquely.
Party leader Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s acting foreign minister, said: “We are an independent bloc… with our own strength. We are not affiliated with anyone and no one follows us.” Another Lebanese parliamentarian, Ziad Assouad, said he was not “an ally of anyone but an ally of [Lebanon’s] national interest, the constitution, the law and the free Lebanese people, who have entrusted us with representing the Lebanese nation.”
As for Iraq, which also featured in Soleimani’s self-congratulatory speech, there was no official response from politicians. Iraq is entangled in a controversy over alleged election fraud. However, the very fact that the populist Muqtada al-Sadr achieved electoral victory on an anti-establishment and anti-Iranian ticket, should serve as a warning to Soleimani and Tehran.
It is hard to know what to make of Soleimani other than the fact that he has poor judgment because he’s a bad winner. Over time, bad winners such as Soleimani tend to unify their opponents. An alliance of resentment can only work against Iran, countering its hard-won influence.
In such an atmosphere, even the most committed of Iran’s clients may turn their backs on the benefactor. This would be mostly to survive electoral verdicts at home. After all, it is difficult to negotiate a democratic system while openly beholden to a foreign power.
There was a time when Soleimani’s humility endeared him to many Iranians. Now, his boastful pride may come before a fall.