Despite harsh stances, Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr still useful ally for Iran
Iran sees Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as an ally worth keeping despite his harsh criticisms of Iran and its allies in Iraq.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images
October 26, 2022
Hundreds of Sadrist protesters joined a demonstration today in Baghdad’s Liberation Square, marking the third anniversary of the start of the so-called October protest movement. On Oct. 25, 2019, massive protestors were confronted with a violent response from the then-government, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
At today’s protests, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — as usual — chanted harsh slogans against Iran and targeted the upcoming government led by incoming Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
Sudani was designated for the premiership earlier this month. He was nominated and is supported by the Coordination Framework, a coalition that consists of groups and parties close to Iran.
The Coordination Framework became the largest bloc in parliament after Sadrists withdrew from parliament at their leader’s request earlier this year.
Sadr had won the largest number of seats in last year’s elections, but he failed to form a government. He then withdrew from parliament, creating an opportunity for his rival, the Coordination Framework, to form the government.
Despite the Sadrists’ harsh attitudes toward Iran — in addition to their opposition to the Coordination Framework, which is considered Iran’s close ally — Tehran not only has taken no action against Sadr, it even still sees him as an ally worth keeping.
This is despite the fact that Sadrist-affiliated media platforms have been widely covering the anti-government protests in Iran, using the crudest terms to reference Iran’s leaders.
For example, Houze Al-Nateqe’, a Telegram channel that closely covers Sadr’s activities, recently spoke about the Iranian protests, writing: “Look at how the Iranian government forces collide with the Iranian people like occupying forces in countries like Israel. Where is the Western media to describe this awful criminal behavior?” In another post, it wrote: “The great Iranian people’s demonstrations against the Iranian regime.” Meanwhile, Jadar News, another Telegram channel allied with Sadr, heavily covered the killings of protesters in Zahedan in the southeast of Iran, airing multiple videos showing the burning of Basij headquarters.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran, which constantly sends “recommendations” to Iranian media outlets and asks them to cover certain events, has always stressed that media outlets not criticize and attack Sadr. In these recommendations, which have been viewed by Al-Monitor, the ministry has always asked outlets to never portray Sadr as an anti-Iranian figure.
In the same vein, Tasnim News Agency, a media outlet close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), wrote in an analytical report that Sadr’s statements after the unrest in Iraq were effective in reducing political tensions in Iraq. In this report, it is also stated, “One should not forget that there is a branch in the Shiite Coordination Framework which believes it’s necessary to have decisive interaction with the Sadr movement and also believes that Sadr has a special place in the axis of resistance.” In another example, Alireza Majidi, an expert on Iraqi issues who works in the media and is close to the Iranian government, wrote that Sadr is from a noble Iraqi family who is a supporter of the resistance, and his dignity should be maintained and his capacities used, especially in rejection of US occupation.
Al-Monitor asked a prominent figure close to the IRGC about the reason behind Iran’s refraining from harsh criticism of Sadr despite the fact that he has adopted very anti-Iranian positions and the media attributed to him report the most severe criticisms and statements against Iran. The figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Sadr has a history of being anti-American: “He still has an anti-American spirit and is against any kind of occupation, so it is not in our interest to be enemy with a person who has had anti-American feelings since the first day of the American occupation and still maintains this position. Especially since Sadr is from an authentic Shiite family in which the revolutionary spirit has always existed. Since the beginning of the revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has had a deep relationship with the Sadr family.”
Iran has always tried to maintain balance and unity among the Shiite political factions and not allow a split to arise among them. The existence of differences among Shiites has never been in the interest of Iran. Therefore, Iran tries to keep the Sadr movement connected with other Shiite political groups. Iran has always supported the approach of political Islam everywhere, including in Iraq, and one of the tools of power is to maintain the unity of pro-political Islam groups. Iraq is no exception to this rule. As long as Sadr believes in political Islam, Iran will not exclude him.
Furthermore, Sadr’s social influence in Iraq is unavoidable. Compared to other Iraqi political leaders, Sadr still enjoys high popularity among the public and has many loyal fans. That’s why Iranians think they can use the capacity of Sadr’s supporters. For example, in the demonstrations against the presence of American forces in Iraq and the call for their withdrawal from the country, the presence of Sadr’s supporters was significant, which was important for Iran.