By many standards, the image of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that surfaced last week should have been an extraordinary sight for ordinary Iraqis and Iranians and many beyond the two neighbouring countries.
The unexpected showing up of Iraq’s most influential Shia leader with the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic has sparked speculation that Iran is finally starting to seek friendlier ties with Al-Sadr after years of mistrust and tension.
In the years following the US-led invasion that toppled Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein, Al-Sadr resisted the US occupation but presented himself as a nationalist leader opposed to the growing Iranian influence in the country.
Al-Sadr has also criticised Iran’s regional policies, especially in Syria, a clear divergence from other Iraqi Shia factions and leaning more to positions of Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia that have opposed Iran’s influence in Syria and its backing of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Only a few days before his pictures with Khamenei appeared in the Iranian media, Al-Sadr lambasted the rising role of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in Iraq amidst a growing dispute between Iraq’s Shia Muslim groups over the role of the Iran-backed force.
In a series of tweets, Al-Sadr announced he would oppose the Baghdad government if it did not act to rein in the PMF, which is in theory part of the Iraqi security forces but it is in practice an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed Shia militias operating on their own.
Al-Sadr’s remarks came after the PMF had refused to obey orders from the government for restructuring and said it was forming an air force of its own. The move raised fears that the leaders of the paramilitary force have been trying to build a “deep state” in Iraq and steer it further into Iran’s orbit.
In one tweet, Al-Sadr described the PMF’s move as “a declaration of the end of [the Iraqi] state” and threatened to “disavow” the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi.
Mindful of possible media headlines, the Iranians attempted to play down last week’s encounter. The meeting between Al-Sadr and Khamenei took place during a religious gathering to commemorate Ashura, the martyrdom anniversary of Shia saint Imam Hussein.
Official photographs showed the maverick cleric sitting next to Khamenei and flanked by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Al-Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani who is Iran’s point man in Iraq and other top officials.
There has been no public comment from either Iranian officials or from Al-Sadr’s office on the previously unannounced summit, but the moment Khamenei held up a photograph with Al-Sadr was certainly heavy with symbolism.
Iranian commentators, however, billed the encounter as a clear message to both the United States and Israel. Some tried to sell it as Al-Sadr’s siding with Iran and its regional policies. Others went as far as to describe the event as a “sign of Shia unity and strength under Khamenei’s leadership.”
As pictures of Al-Sadr and Khamenei pinged around the Internet and made their way onto newspaper front pages, the Iraqi public appeared divided over the meeting and whether it would usher in changes in Al-Sadr standing.
Many analysts wondered if Al-Sadr would change track and take up approaches that would appeal to the Islamic Republic’s expectations of Iraqi Shia politicians, who usually toe its line.
Critics saw Al-Sadr’s visit to Iran as ringing alarm bells indicating the possible fall of one of Iraq’s last and strongest bulwarks of nationalism in the face of Iran’s persistent endeavours to dominate the beleaguered country.
On the other hand, Al-Sadr’s supporters came to his defence, saying that their leader had always conducted foreign policy with Iraq’s neighbours that was squarely based on the country’s national interests.
Meanwhile, the Tehran summit, which was only revealed to the public in dribs and drabs, has left many open questions. The key question remains whether it will change the dynamics of Iraq’s Shia politics with regard to Iraq’s national interests and the country’s future relationship with Iran.
The summit came at a time of growing tensions among Iraq’s Shias over the growing role of the Iran-backed PMF and its future. The crisis has opened a crack in Shia ranks and threatens to set off a wider fissure within the Shia community.
Al-Sadr’s visit to Tehran also came at a time when Iran remains locked in a tug of war with the United States and Arab Sunni governments over its nuclear programme and amid accusations of Tehran’s supporting extremist groups across the Middle East, including the Iraqi militias.
Al-Sadr has not offered a clear explanation for his surprising gesture, but it likely stems from a tactical re-assessment of his stands on both Iraq’s lingering political crisis and rising regional tensions.
Iran plays a key role in both conflicts, creating a backlash against its ambitions to increase its influence in Iraq and its attempts to contract plans for regional expansion to its proxies in Iraq.
However, in-depth reflection on these and other factors pertaining to the outcome of the Tehran summit makes it difficult to conclude that Iran has succeeded in getting Al-Sadr fully on board, especially in making him join the chorus of Iran’s Shia allies in Iraq.
Some of the scepticism is related to Al-Sadr’s personality and his political performance. Al-Sadr made his reputation as a maverick cleric-politician who has oscillated back and forth in Iraq’s turbulent politics.
Though Al-Sadr may be ready to show verbal solidarity with Shia Iran in its confrontation with the United States and Israel, it is hard to see him turning 180 degrees round in his stands just to please Iran.
One must imagine that Al-Sadr is not the Atari games-type cartoon character created by his political foes. He is in fact a powerful religious and political leader who is recognised as both rational and pragmatic.
In recent years, he has been resorting to political manoeuvring to shake up Iraq’s political system, which he blames for many of the country’s woes, and recalibrate what he considers to be the nefarious influence of what he terms as “impudent militias.”
In last year’s parliamentary elections in Iraq, Al-Sadr’s Saaroun List, which included Communists, secured a parliamentary majority by winning 54 out of 328 seats in the assembly. Al-Sadr emerged as Iraq’s most popular Shia leader and a potential “kingmaker”.
Moreover, unlike other Iraqi Shia leaders, Al-Sadr has displayed his willingness and preparedness to stand up to Iran’s influence in Iraq. His coalition campaign programme put forward as its main goal rebuilding the Iraqi state on a civic and democratic basis and promoting anti-corruption policies.
While it remains to be seen if the recent summit has succeeded in providing any concrete details of an agreement between Al-Sadr and the Islamic Republic, both will stay focused on the reactions from other stakeholders in Iraq, particularly within the Shia community.
Of course, Iran will not stay out of Iraq, but whatever the outcome of the Al-Sadr-Khamenei summit, Iran cannot play up its expectations of Al-Sadr, who has been promoting himself as a champion of Iraqi nationalism in the face of pro-Iran groups.
Iran realises that as it tries to push its power deeper into Iraq, a culture of patriotism and national pride will shore up resistance to its influence.
While Iran remains keen to consolidate Shia empowerment in Iraq and resist attempts to weaken the community’s control over Iraq, it would be a gross strategic miscalculation if the Persian nation tried to impose its hegemony over the largely Arab Shia community of Iraq.
One warning against actions that might undermine Iraq’s Shia status came last week from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi’s most revered Shia cleric, who called on Iraqis to maintain their country’s “sovereignty and independence.”
In an interview published in Beirut on 12 September, Hamid Al-Khafaf, Sistani’s representative in Lebanon, also quoted him as saying that Iraqis should retain the post-Saddam system that is based on “political pluralism and the peaceful rotation of power.”
The clergyman, who has millions of followers worldwide, said Muslim Shias across the world should remain fully integrated into their societies and their countries.
Sistani does not usually speak out in public, but his messages are routinely delivered by his representatives. His remarks, which coincided with the debate over the Al-Sadr-Khamenei summit, were widely seen as being part of his role since the downfall of Saddam Hussein to use his clout in stabilising Iraq’s turbulent post-war politics.
Leaving aside the theatrics of the abrupt summit meeting, no move of any substance has been made in convincing Al-Sadr to make a U-turn, and the meeting was little more than a show.
The reality is that getting Al-Sadr to agree to relinquish his hard-won reputation as a “nationalist leader” and “Iraq’s saviour” will be tantamount to getting him to commit political suicide.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.