Iran’s Sadr problem

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

Sadr’s resurgence complicates the dynamics of Iraqi politics not just for Iran, but also for the Iraqi religious establishment.

For Iran, Sadr has always been a useful kingmaker. In 2006, Maliki was short of the required MPs to form a government and could not convince Sadr to back him following a brutal war between them that engulfed Sadr City in Baghdad with much bloodshed. Tehran intervened and invited Sadr for three days, persuading him into backing Maliki. Sadr returned to Iraq and joined the coalition. A similar scenario took place in 2010. However, this time, Sadr made sure that people knew he was disgruntled at being passed over for leadership by Iran in favour of Maliki. Sources close to the story claim that Maliki and others regarded Sadr as like an unruly child who would, in the end, toe the line.

Frustrated at his inability to make any headway, Sadr announced a withdrawal from political life, preferring to wait for a more opportune time.

Iran has made no secret of its preferred candidates. Although Abadi could be influenced, his reservations over some of Tehran’s interests in the country were well-known, particularly its enduring use of ultra vires militias. Moreover, Abadi sought to play the Americans and the Iranians against one another in a bid to restore some Iraqi national sovereignty in the subsequent fall-out. This was none more evident than in the war on ISIS with Abadi’s insistence, alongside the US, that the Iraqi army be the main force instead of the Popular Mobilisation Force (the “Hashd”). This questionable loyalty is behind Tehran’s insistence that either Maliki, or the Hashd’s Hadi al-Amiri, should be Prime Minister. Maliki is tried and tested; Tehran’s man through and through. Hadi al-Amiri is famous for his pro-Iran stance. Sadr was meant to back one of the two, not rule them out.

Najaf versus Qom

Sadr’s resurgence also brings to the fore another awkward dynamic that could pose a more serious threat to Tehran. Iraqi religious authorities have privately lamented for some time the de facto transfer of authority from Najaf to Qom. The Iraqi Shia community have a long history of religious leaders including Sadr’s deceased father, Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr whose death has been eulogised in the Shia community as an example of pious resistance to a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein). Iraqi religious leaders do not see themselves in any way inferior to Iran’s clergy and have sought for some time to shake off Qom’s dominance and assumption of religious leadership of the Shia. Although Sadr’s victory does not beckon a complete upheaval, it will most definitely have raised some eyebrows in Qom and encouraged beleaguered clerics in Najaf.

Dealing with Sadr

Now that he has become a prime player of his own accord, and despite Iran’s wishes, the fear for Tehran is that Sadr is now far more difficult to control and unlikely to play the role of a willing kingmaker any more. Moreover, there is a genuine fear that Sadr will actively seek to antagonise Iranian policy in Iraq. Sadr has a very tetchy relationship with Iran’s allies, both with the militias and politicians. Sadr’s resentment for these allies is deep and very public.

However, Sadr lacks the seats to form a majority and does not enjoy a political consensus that suggests he will be able to establish a coalition bloc and, subsequently, a government. With 54 seats, he is far short of a majority and is likely to find great difficulty in pushing through a nomination for his preferred prime minister (Sadr cannot run as he himself did not run for public office). Moreover, his bloc includes secular and communist elements generally opposed to his more religious line of politics, however imbued with nationalism it may be. In the face of overwhelming difficulties, it remains to be seen how united this bloc will be in the future.

There is also the issue of second placed Al-Fatah led by Iran’s preferred candidate Hadi al-Amiri which secured only 7 seats less than Sadr (47). Although Sadr’s victory makes it much more difficult for Iran’s preferred candidate Hadi al-Amiri to become prime minister, Haider al-Abadi’s third place Nasr coalition is a strong enough showing for Iran to encourage its allies to support the former Prime Minister once more. If Iran unites Amiri, Maliki, and al-Hakim’s parties behind Abadi’s 42 seats, which is most certainly possible, Iran will succeed in tempering Sadr’s fervour, protecting the status quo, and thwarting his attempts at a political revolution. It is worth remembering that although Sadr won the most seats, a poor turnout of 44% suggests a wider apathy and that Sadr’s popular revolution is not as popular as it first appears. For the sake of comparison, in 2014, Maliki’s Dawa party secured 92 seats from a 66% turnout.

Thirdly, Iranian-backed militias remain ever-present in Iraq with many on the verge of being incorporated in the Iraqi army. In other words, Iran remains not only a dominant political force, but also a military force.

The US position

Contrary to popular belief, Iran’s relative difficulties in Iraq following the elections do not necessarily benefit the US. Although Sadr is currently more antagonistic than cooperative with Iran, his fierce hatred for the US is well known. Sadr was the architect of the Mehdi army that clashed with US forces following the 2003 invasion and his rhetoric has been consistently anti-US.

Moreover, Hadi al-Amiri is far too pro-Iran for the US and is the very individual the US scrambled to reject as a candidate for interior minister in 2015.

Abadi has seemingly balanced pro-Iran and pro-US interests. Resentful of Iranian-backed militias, Abadi has sought to play off Washington and Tehran against one another. However, his inability to secure mass support renders him incapable of shaking off either. In the midst of bad choices, Abadi is not only a conciliatory choice for Iran in light of Sadr’s victory, but also for the US who see him as a means of keeping the status quo while a re-thinking of strategy takes place.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…