In the short time since the Iraq eletions, all sides are reporting that the result was whatever would be most in their favor. There is very little concrete evidence, but what evidence there is suggests that Sistani's United Iraqi Alliance has won far more of the Shi'ite vote than did Allawi's party, and that voting in the Sunni Arab regions may not present the rosy picture that was extolled in the last few days. If the situation does indeed result in a more polarized outcome than reflected by recent political spin (just wait for the State of the Union tonight...), there will need to be a day of reckoning in the near future--a point at which politicians are forced to concede that they were wrong on Iraq, again. But what developments will this bring on the geopolitical stage? There are three basic outcomes possible in the aftermath of the Iraq elections. Think of the potential outcome as a spectrum of possibilities represented by a triangle--the situation will be pulled towards one of the following 3 poles:
1. US Victory: Democratic ideals prevail, Shi'a groups recognize the need to share power with Sunni factions in order to maintain peace and to achieve government that is perceived as both legitimate and stable. Sunni groups realize that shared power and significant regional autonomy are better than insurgency, and come to the table. In doing so, the government also largely reject outside influences, especially from Iran, but Iran is largely placated by the outcome because they still perceive a mainly Shi'a state securing their Western border. The US gets what it wants, without driving Iran to feel the need to build nukes.
2. Iranian victory: The elections result in a clear majority for Shi'a parties (mainly UIA), and Hussayn Sharistani becomes president in a highly Iran-influenced government. Shi'a groups decide to fight the Sunnis rather than compromise their newfound powers with them, and the nation descends into civil war along sectarian lines. The Iranians are quiet (they got what they want) and make concessions in their nuclear program. The US identifies Syria as the primary source of support of Sunni insurgents, and moves towards action against Syria.
3. Chaos: The elections fail to produce a viable government, as violence prevents Sunnis from voting, the new government is therefore clearly not representative of the popular will, and the insurgency intensifies. The Shi'a inability to produce peace and a compromise leads to a Kurdish withdrawal into their autonomous region, sparking Kurd-Arab fighting over Kirkuk and Mosul. Their best hope for legitimate power having failed, the Shi'a militant groups--largely backed by Iran--engage in the conflict and all sense of governance falls apart. Iran pushes for Shi'a autonomy in the south (in a state that will be conveniently controlled, perhaps even annexed, by Iran), which results in Shi'a militants fighting US forces. The Iranian support to Shi'a forces leads the US to up-the ante in threatening Iran, which in-turn leads Iran to accelerate their nuclear program. This results in one or both of the following: US airstrikes against Iranian enrichment facilities and symbols of government and/or Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets. Either way, Iran retaliates against Israel and domestic targets in the US.
Each of these scenarios is, of course, an extreme--the real result will probably not lie at any of the poles. The US will pull towards the first pole. Iran will push away from it, but it's unclear if they will actively pull towards either pole 2 or 3, or if they'll just pull in the easiest direction away from 1. Al-Qa'ida will also push away from pole 1, but they will probably follow the same path as Iran and pull in whatever direction (2 or 3) gets them furthest from point 1, as both poles 2 and 3 facilitate their eventual victory.
Pole 1 will not happen--the forces pushing away from it are too strong--and that will become clear in the next few months. There are three key questions: First, how effective will the US and elements within Iraq be in minimizing the slide away from Pole 1? Second, which path--towards Pole 2 or Pole 3--will prove to be the path of least resistance? Third, will the US realize that Pole 1 is untenable, and decide to push toward either Pole 2 or 3 in time to dictate the future course? Both paths present some initial resistance, but as soon as some event carves a small channel one way or the other the dam will break and the future of the conflict will quickly be very clear. Over the coming weeks and months we must watch for how, when and where this crack will appear...