Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 11, 2019. (Photo via Iran’s supreme leader’s website)
Inside story: Will visit to Iran reconcile Iraq’s divided ‘Shiite House’?
Return to the political process?
Though the Sadrist sermon was devoid of any political rhetoric, the mass congregations of worshipers on Jan. 13 have been seen by some observers as political warm-up by the head of the movement. The backdrop is hard to miss; amid growing talk of Sadr’s “silence” and “retirement,” Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ Al-Sudani’s government is nearing its 100th day in office without having scored a major political win. Given their performance in the Oct. 2021 parliamentary polls, when they became the single largest bloc, the Sadrists are unlikely to exclude themselves from the formal political process in perpetuity.
In this context, many of the ingredients for another political crisis are already stacking up. While the victory in the Gulf Cup saw Iraqis come together in celebration, the country has been beset with a currency crisis. The government has also yet to present a draft for a new election law, as Sudani had promised he would within three months of forming his cabinet. Of further note, the prime minister—whose appointment last autumn ended the deadlock between his supporters in the Iran-backed Shiite Coordination Framework and the Sadrists after the Oct. 2021 elections—also vowed that he would call early legislative polls towards the end of this summer, less than a year after taking charge.
But Sudani and his supporters do not appear to seek to restore the relative equilibrium in the political process that was lost with the Sadrist withdrawal from formal politics. The prime minister has called for provincial council elections to be held in October, indicating that there are no plans for early parliamentary polls this summer. Meanwhile, some Coordination Framework MPs have described early general elections as “pointless following the formation of Sudani’s government.”
These dynamics—and their domestic and international complications—portend the possibility of Sadr’s gradual return to the political stage. While the mercurial Shiite cleric is known for his unexpected moves, the manner and timing of his official return to Iraqi politics can reasonably be expected to only occur once the stars simultaneously align on the domestic, regional, and international scenes.
Sadr and Iran
Having won more than 70 of the 329 seats in Iraq’s legislature in the Oct. 2021 polls, the Sadrists initially sought to form a “national majority government” together with Sunni Arab blocs and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The endeavor could have sidelined Iran’s allies in the Shiite Coordination Framework from the executive branch of power.
But the tenacity of the Coordination Framework parties ultimately paid off. As a political deadlock dragged on, Sadr in June 2022 ordered his MPs to resign, and after violent clashes in Baghdad’s Green Zone two months later announced his “final retirement” from politics. The move ultimately paved the way for Sudani to take office last autumn, with the backing of the Coordination Framework.
Though Iran’s allies have advanced amid the Sadrist withdrawal from the political process, Amwaj.media has learned that there are serious attempts to restore “warmth” to the line of communication between Tehran and Hanana, Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf Governorate. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an informed political source in Iraq asserted that these efforts have entailed talk of a “necessary” trip to Iran by Sadr in the near future. The head of the Sadrist Movement would in such a scenario be expected to directly meet with Iranian officials in charge of the Iraq dossier to discuss political developments.
Talk of Sadr possibly visiting Iran—where members of his extended family live, and where he himself was previously based during parts of the US occupation of Iraq—first emerged on the third anniversary of the US assassination of the former commander of the expeditionary Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Qasem Soleimani was on Jan. 3, 2020 killed in an American drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport along with the deputy chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Amid rumors of a possibly impending visit to Iran by Sadr, members of his movement have been quick to deny such an eventuality. However, speaking on condition of anonymity, an Iranian diplomat asserted to Amwaj.media that there was a basis for the speculations, without further elaboration.
Lebanon appears central to the apparent efforts to jumpstart a rapprochement between Sadr and Iran. Arabic-language outlet ‘Jadeh Iran’ in Nov. 2022 reported that Sadrist leaders and representatives from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement had gathered in Beirut for talks. The two sides are said to have discussed political developments which surfaced prior to the formation of the Sudani government in Oct. 2022, and the repercussions—including the different scenarios that could unfold.
Preferring to speak anonymously given the sensitivity of the topic, a regional political source indicated to Amwaj.media that the reported meetings in Lebanon late last year were a starting point. In subsequent talks, the source claimed, “A deeper and more candid” dialogue brought together Sadrist leaders and prominent Iranian figures in the Lebanese capital. The two sides are said to have discussed political developments and possible means to restore the political equilibrium in Iraq that was lost when the Coordination Framework parties pushed for the formation of a government without Sadr and also moved forward with measures seen as provocative by some political forces.
The notion that the discussions in Beirut have supposedly led to a joint conclusion that it is vital for Iraq to regain its lost political balance was echoed by an informed Iraqi source in Baghdad. The source told Amwaj.media that there is an emerging understanding of the need for arm-twisting and exclusionary tactics to be abandoned—without going against Sadr’s concept of a “national majority government.” If accurate, this would be a major step forward since the Coordination Framework parties interpreted the Sadrist alliance-building after the Oct. 2021 polls as an attempt to exclude them. At the same time, the first informed political source in Iraq said the efforts of the “wise” in Tehran to promote “dialogue and reconciliation” with Sadr are being complicated by provocative reactions by some players.
The head of the Sadrist Movement has yet to express a clear stance on the anti-establishment protests in Iran that first erupted last September. But in early November, he slammed attacks on turbaned clerics amid the unrest. His condemnation has been interpreted by some observers as indicating that he wishes to maintain a certain distance from the political establishment in Tehran. Ultimately, he has his own calculations in managing and fine-tuning his feud with the Iranians. Sadr’s interests and vision demand the preservation of a general Muslim identity, but that each country should also maintain its own identity without exporting or imposing its culture on other countries.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a prominent Sadrist figure told Amwaj.media that Sadr wants Iran to respect Iraq’s specificities and deal with it as an independent and sovereign state rather than a country on which agendas can be imposed. It therefore should come as no surprise that Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad recently came under fire by Sadrists for stating that he wished that Sadr would have “consulted” with him on the decision to withdraw from the political process.
The key questions ahead pertain to the mechanisms required to restore the relative political equilibrium in Iraq, and the nature of the Sadrist Movement’s return to the political process. There are many scenarios that could unfold, particularly considering the internal disputes within the Coordination Framework.
Another important dimension to consider is Sudani’s political positioning. His lack of action to restore balance to the political process is greatly due to pressure from some Coordination Framework leaders who are keen on excluding Sadr. Facing ambiguous stances rather than explicit support from regional and international players—with the notable exception of Iran—the prime minister is vulnerable to pressure from his domestic supporters.
To achieve its aims without entering the formal political process, the Sadrist Movement could resort to street politics with the backing of actors who are also rivals of the Coordination Framework and the Sudani government. Iran and its Iraqi allies fear this worst-case scenario the most, as they do not want Sudani’s premiership to end prematurely and under pressure, like that of Adil Abdul Mahdi (2018 –20).
There is another scenario to consider, too: for Sadr’s anticipated trip to Iran to be followed by a new political formula among Iraqi parties with the help of Iranian mediation. This would leave no actor embarrassed or broken by the other, and most of all, help Iran achieve its aim to reconcile the divided ‘Shiite House’ in Iraqi politics.