It is difficult to understate the symbolism of Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sitting between Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani during Ashura ceremonies in Tehran this week. That spot is preferred seating, reserved for the most esteemed VIPs of the Islamic Republic, like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Sadr these days might seem an unlikely choice for such a place of honor. He is known mostly for his Iraqi nationalist and often anti-Iranian positions. But Sadr is a complicated, sophisticated player. His family connections are deeply intertwined with Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries, and his relationships in Iran were never severed. He lived in Qom for years, and he knows how to navigate Iran’s clerical and political elites.
While Sadr being in Iran for Ashura shouldn’t be a shocker, the choreography of it all is also about Tehran sending a signal to Iraq and the region that it remains the key broker in Iraqi politics. And that requires a US response.
'Farewell my country'
Before leaving for Iran, Sadr had criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi for not doing enough to rein in Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Referring to an announcement by deputy PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis that the PMU would build an "air force" with Iranian support, Sadr lashed out with a tweet that led with “farewell my country.” Although Abdul Mahdi made clear that Muhandis was not speaking for the Iraqi government, Sadr tweeted, "This is a transformation from a state of law to a state of riot. If the government does not take decisive actions, I’ll withdraw my support from it."
Ali Mamouri reports that “the senior leader of Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, Sabal al-Saidi, said Sadr is performing a difficult job in terms of confronting the formation of a PMU air force, and he has already succeeded in preventing such a dangerous step.”
Mamouri adds that “Sadr's public presence between Khamenei and Soleimani is a clear sign that Sadr is discussing a political project with Iran,” including the possibility of replacing Abdul Mahdi. Iran has shown no overt signs of discontent with the prime minister, so this seems unlikely. Iraq’s political elites may also seek to avoid the precedent of moving against a sitting Iraqi prime minister — which would be a devastating precedent for a country keen on asserting sovereignty.
Sadr also makes his bid in Najaf, not just Baghdad
Sadr’s trip to Iran may have a Najaf, as well as Baghdad, angle. Najaf is the home of the Iraqi hawza, the Shiite Islamic seminaries that are central to both Islamic learning and Iraqi power and politics.
“Another Shiite cleric, Ammar Hakim, has formed a strong opposition against Abdul Mahdi,” explains Mamouri. “Hakim organized a wave of protests against Abdul Mahdi's government across Iraq last July, taking the lead on protests that Sadr had led for years. It seems Sadr's trip to Iran is a move to reclaim that lead from Hakim. The differences between Sadr and Hakim come in the context of a long history of competition between the two families over the leadership of Shiite communities, especially in the religious seminary of Najaf.”
“Sadr's presence at the assembly in Iran also indicates that he is trying to resume the role of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite authority, in Iraqi politics,” continues Mamouri. “So far, Sistani has had the upper hand in forming governments and undertaking other big changes in the country. Now, Sadr — for the first time — appears between the two most influential figures in Iran, sending the message that he is representing Iraq in any discussion about Iraqi national matters. Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, criticized Sistani and called him a silent marja (religious authority), meaning he was too passive in political matters. The younger Sadr also started a war against US troops inside the city of Najaf in 2004 despite Sistani's objections and while he was on a medical trip to London.”
Iran resets the Iraqi chessboard
Having Sadr at Khamenei’s feet for Ashura was meant to signal that Tehran is the key outside arbiter of Iraqi politics. While Sadr never cut his ties to Iran, his nationalist messaging in Iraq, including going after the PMU, as well as his goodwill visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, has not been well received. That Iraqi nationalist voice is picking up, including against Iran-backed PMU and other interference. It’s not yet a wave, and we don’t want to overstate it, but it’s there. Mustafa Saadoun writes this week about an initiative for the Council of Representatives (parliament) to appoint PMU leaders. Tehran would prefer Sadr tone down the anti-Iran rhetoric and have him redirect his populism to Iran’s enemies: the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran is also reorganizing its assets and forces in Iraq, writes Mamouri, based upon sources in Iran. The PMU factions under the Fatah parliamentary bloc led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party may be losing their effectiveness, in Iran’s eyes. Many of the PMU are associated in the public’s mind with corruption, alcohol and drug smuggling, gambling and other illegal business, adds Mamouri. In this context, Iran’s leader considers Sadr an essential, if not fully compliant, partner in Iraqi politics.
US, having ‘a lot to offer,’ can seize another opportunity
Sadr’s visit to Iran presents an opportunity for the Trump administration.
“The US needs to compete with Iran in Iraq. We have a lot to offer,” a US administration official told Al-Monitor, speaking not for attribution. “We are not in it solely for our own interests. Iran is.”
Iraq’s unity and strength are a shared interest of the United States and Iraq and the best response to Iran’s machinations to keep Iraq weak and divided.
The Pentagon has sent strong signals in recent weeks about Trump's commitment to Iraqi sovereignty and partnership.
The statement last month expressing support for “Iraqi sovereignty” and “against any potential actions by neighbors that could lead to violence in Iraq" in response to alleged Israeli airstrikes on PMU bases in Iraq is such an example. The Pentagon added that "Iran must not use Iraqi territory to threaten other countries in the region," and that "Iran's destabilizing activities undermine Iraq's security and increase the risk of regional conflict."
And shared US-Iraqi interests are not just about Iran. The Islamic State has “solidified its insurgent capabilities” in Iraq, according to a recent Pentagon report. This requires a sustained and deepening engagement with Iraqi Security Forces.
The Pentagon highlighted this week how the airstrike against the Islamic State in Salahuddin province was a joint operation conducted by the US-led counter-IS coalition and Iraqi counterterrorism forces.
The United States and Iraq will benefit if Iran sees that Iraq is a trusted ally of the United States, rather than simply an instrument or means of "maximum pressure." By continuing to engage Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih as partners in battling the Islamic State and dealing with regional matters, the United States displays that it is not playing the angles, like Iran does, but is instead, unlike Iran, the true champion of Iraqi sovereignty.
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