Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory in Iraqi elections raises alarm in Tehran

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | May 21, 2018
Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory in Iraqi elections raises alarm in Tehran

Firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s surprising lead in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections has raised alarm in Tehran. The Iranian press expressed the concern that Sadr would seek to undercut the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq by marginalizing Iran’s allies and allowing regional Sunni countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to make inroads into Iraqi politics and economy at the expense of Tehran’s interests. Sadr’s strong performance on the ballot day prompted Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, to immediately travel to Baghdad, in an apparent effort to pull together a broader alliance between Iran’s Shiite allies and other willing parties for a coalition government amenable to the Islamic Republic. In contrast, officials and media outlets in regional Sunni Arab countries were cautiously optimistic that Sadr’s victory might result in a nonsectarian, inclusive government in Baghdad that will strengthen Iraq’s sovereignty and independence and reverse Iran’s growing damaging influence in the country.

Sadr’s challenge to Iran

The victory by Sadr’s Sairoon coalition took many in Tehran by surprise. Both conservative and reformist outlets in Iran cautioned Sadr and its allies would challenge Iran’s political and economic spheres of influence in Iraq. They pointed out that during the campaign season, Sadr adopted a nationalist tone, pledged to push back against both Iranian and American influence, and consistently criticized the Fatah Alliance, a Tehran-backed coalition of militia groups from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which came second in the polls. Sadr’s alignment with nonsectarian, secular and Communist parties also caused a stir in Tehran. Iranian officials had said prior to the elections that a secular government in Baghdad would not be acceptable to Tehran. “The equations of Iraq’s political landscape are changing,” wrote Mardomsalari. The reformist outlet further warned that Sadr’s electoral “earthquake” and his followers’ anti-Iran slogans during election rallies “indicate that anti-Iran plots are underway in Iraq.” 

Echoing a similar concern, Khorasan daily argued that Sadr might end the balancing foreign policy approach of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi; and through his influence in the next cabinet and parliament, he would steer Iraq closer to Washington and its regional Sunni allies. “Sadr is a critic of Iran and has included secular and civil society movements in his coalition. His social base does not hold a positive view of Iran’s presence in Iraq; and most importantly, he has good relations with regional Sunni states and America’s allies.” The article in Khorasan, however, cautions that if Tehran tries to exclude Sadr in the next government, the populist cleric and his followers will grow even more antagonistic toward Iran in the future. Conservative daily Fararu wrote that the Sadr’s victory could be a “turning point” for Iran’s role in Iraq. It pointed out that Sadr already aroused anti-Iran sentiments inside Iraq during the election campaign. 

Fear of Saudi influence

Some in Iran also assume that Washington and Riyadh facilitated Sadr’s victory in the polls. Sabah Zangeneh, an Iranian analyst of Middle Eastern affairs, told Shia News that the United States had done “extensive planning” to shape the Iraqi elections as part of a broader strategy to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq. “America’s presence and role in the next Iraqi government will weaken the Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF] and forces that believe in Iraqi independence from American policies,” he added. 

Sadr’s high-profile visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year and his call on Sunni Arab states to cultivate closer diplomatic and economic ties with Iraq had already worried Tehran. And with Sadr now potentially the kingmaker, many in Tehran are concerned that Riyadh will now use the opportunity to deepen its influence not only in Iraq’s Sunni regions but also in the Shiite heartlands of Najaf and Karbala – posing a serious challenge to Iran. Eghtesad News, a business-focused reformist publication, claimed that Sadr’s decision not to form a coalition with the Iranian-backed Fatah Alliance and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc is part of a “Saudi agenda” in Iraq. Likewise, conservative daily Alef wrote that Riyadh is seeking to divide the Iraqi Shiites and change the power dynamics in the country through the Sadr bloc. “Will Riyadh’s efforts through Sadr pay off?” asked Alef in an editorial, titled “Muqtada al-Sadr’s game in Saudi field.”

Iran’s failure?

But some Iranian analysts called for patience, pointing out that Sadr’s victory on the ballot day will not necessarily translate into a dominant political power as other parties may manage to unite and set up a government without him. Others also emphasized that Sadr is not Iran’s enemy and that he shares Tehran’s position that American troops should leave Iraq.

Hassan Danaeifar, a Quds Force official who served as ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2017, for example, said it was not yet clear whether Sadr would try to distance Iraq from Iran or cultivate closer ties with Washington and its regional allies. “One or two trips cannot alter the core principles of an individual or movement,” he said in an interview with Entekhab daily, referring to Sadr’s visit to Riyadh. “Iraq’s parties are particularly sophisticated. What’s clear is that the party that America supported has not succeeded,” he added, referring to Abadi’s Nasr bloc. “The Americans are having deliberations about Muqtada al-Sadr. The reality is that the Sadr movement has always opposed the American occupation and military presence in Iraq,” he added. 

According to Danaeifar, the Iraqi election results were positive for Iran. He pointed out that the number of parliamentary seats won by Iran’s militia allies within the Fatah Alliance increased fivefold in this election compared to the 2014 polls. He also emphasized that Iran maintains close relations with all Iraqi parties and argued that the Sadr bloc may even be willing to form a coalition government with the Fatah Alliance and Maliki’s State of Law bloc – a scenario many analysts see as unlikely.  

Optimism in Sunni Arab countries

Officials and media outlets in Sunni Gulf countries, however, welcomed Sadr’s victory and expressed the hope that Sadr would restrain Iran’s growing influence in the Arab country.

Soon after preliminary results were announced, Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi minister of state for Gulf affairs, congratulated Sadr; and in a tacit rebuke of Iran, he said the Sadr coalition would preserve Iraq’s sovereignty and Arab identity. An article in Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat wrote that if Sadr and Abadi join hands to marginalize the Iranian-backed PMF groups and the Maliki bloc, it will be a significant step to improve governance, curb corruption and reduce foreign meddling in Iraq. An Egyptian journalist wrote that Sunni Arab states “scored a golden goal against Iran at the Iraqi stadium.” He added that Sadr’s victory indicates that Iran’s influence in Iraq is declining. 

Some Arab analysts stressed that if a nationalist government comes to power in Baghdad, it would challenge Iran’s role in the broader region. “Logically, if Iran loses its control and power in Iraq, it will then also lose its influence in Syria. There will be no linked-up supply routes and there will be no Iraqi militias,” wrote Farouq Yousef in al-Arab. “That means if a potential war breaks out, it will be on the Iranian territory,” it added.

Iran’s meddling

Soleimani’s trip to Iraq raised the concern among officials of Sadr’s coalition that Tehran is trying to bring together a broad coalition under the leadership of Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the powerful Badr Organization and leader of the Fatah Alliance. “Efforts are being made to form a coalition to prevent any Iranian meddling in the matter of establishing a government,” said Dia al-Asadi, head of Sadr’s political office. He added that the Sadr movement will use “legal and democratic means” to block Iranian influence. “At present, we are seeking to establish a government without the presence of Iran and without a coalition with Hadi al-Amiri and Nouri al-Maliki.” Sadr himself however held a meeting with Amiri over the weekend, prompting the speculation that he may after all be willing to form a coalition government with Amiri and other Iranian-backed Shiite leaders.

The maverick cleric

Muqtada al-Sadr is a member of an influential Shiite family and a son of prominent Shiite cleric, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. Sadr had lost some of his political clout recently, but he made a strong comeback on May 12. He once against demonstrated that he maintains a large support base among the Iraqi Shiites as the leader of the al-Sadr movement.

Although Sadr has lived in Iran for years (he lived in Iran when his fighters fought U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion) and has maintained close relations with Iranian religious, military and political establishments, he has lately distanced himself from Tehran. While Iraqi militia groups now part of the Fatah Alliance have deployed forces to fight alongside the Revolutionary Guards in Syria, Sadr publicly called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign to avoid further bloodshed in the war-ravaged country. Sadr has also refrained from hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states in the region. He has toned down his anti-American rhetoric although he still opposes the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Some of his allies in parliament recently voted in favor of a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal.

While Tehran and its allies are worried that warming relations between Baghdad and Riyadh would undermine their influence and interests in Iraq and the broader region, many prominent Iraqi Shiite leaders believe closer ties with regional Sunni states would significantly benefit sectarian harmony, political stability and economic recovery in the war-ravaged country.