By Hamid Bahrami
September 15, 2017
The reality in Iraq today is that the defeat of ISIS has provided a vacuum in its politics, which will have significant impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country next year.
In recent months, Iraqi people have witnessed new moves from political and religious groups who dominate the country’s politics. After 14 years of internal violent conflicts, part of the pro-Tehran Shi’ite alliance have finally realized that the unconditional dependence on the Iranian regime will further exacerbate the sectarian conflict.
However, it should not be forgotten that the changing US policy on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East has influenced their decisions. In this regard, both influential and famed Shi’ite clerics Ammar Al Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr have changed their views about Iran and the role of its proxies and allies in Iraq.
According to reports, Mr Al Hakim has decided to step down as the leader of one of the Iraqi groups allied to Tehran. This move means that a significant number of Shi’ite voters in Iraq will not pursue and back the plans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the coming elections.
Similarly, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, decided to visit Saudi Arabia and UAE in what one could describe as an unanticipated move even for the Sunni parties. Mr al-Sadr played a key role to end the political deadlock in Iraqi politics following the elections in both 2010 and 2014.
It is agreed that the former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki’s catastrophic and sectarian policies lead to a deep division among different ethnicities in Iraq. These policies, adopted in coordination with Tehran and its IRGC, were in part based on suppression of the Sunnis and disregarding of their rights.
The weakness of Iraqi army, the frequent use of armed forces to achieve political goals, the direct control of commander of IRGC’s Quds force Qasem Soleimani over Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and eventually, the seizure of nearly one third of Iraqi territory by ISIS, all lead to the recent decision by both of these clerics to distance themselves from the Iranian regime.
In this regard, Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late July brought most attention from the media as he met Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Jaddah. Apparently, the leader of Sadrist’s movement feels the wind of change in Iraq and is looking to improve his relations with major actors both inside and outside of the country.
Visit to Riyadh
If Sadr wishes to achieve his political ambitions, he will have to choose between the following two options – reducing tie with Tehran dramatically and changing his political views on Sunni parties. His meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, however, sends a positive signal to all Iraqi parties who oppose the IRGC and Tehran’s intervention in Iraq.
Importantly, distancing himself from Tehran does not mean that he is embracing or will embrace other regional countries. But this decision rather indicates that the main player in both Iraq’s political and religious scene is taking steps to change the balance of power in the country.
This move clearly scared the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, because he immediately sent his special envoy to Iraq to meet Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in an attempt to realign the political order. Not only both Iraqi clerics refused to meet Khamenei’s envoy but a spokesperson of the Sadrist movement harshly criticized Khamenei.
“Iran’s interference in political affairs is detrimental to Iraq’s national interest … Khamenei’s envoy carries a new sectarian project that Iran provided six months ago”, Amir al-Kanani said in an interview. These comments makes it clear that Sadr is now determined to restrict the Iranian regime’s role in Iraq.
If Sadr, al-Hakim and Sunni parties agree to restrict Iran’s destructive role in Iraq, the balance of power will shift significantly in favor of the Iraqi people and their representatives. Such agreement will require complicated political negotiations and a real willingness from all these parties to compromise in the interest of an independent Iraq.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has consistently pretended to not have any role in the political decision-making in Iraq. But in reality, in most cases, his silence empowered the pro-Tehran Shiite block or indirectly paved the way to crush the Iraqi opposition to the IRGC and its intervention in Iraq.
But contrary to the past, the refusal of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to meet Khamenei’s envoy sent a strong message to all Shiite groups and voters in Iraq that he disapproves of Tehran’s role in the country.
Considering that the actions and words of Grand Ayatollah Sistani has great influence over Iraq’s Shiite population, his decision to turn away Iran’s Supreme Leader could result in a political earthquake for Maliki’s Dawa party and other pro-Tehran parties, just one year before the parliamentary elections.
Although the Iranian Supreme Leader got Sistani’s message, it would be naive to believe that the IRGC under Khamenei’s control will give up to the new reality in Iraq and not try to bypass all likely restrictions.
The IRGC controls a powerful Shiite militia, known as People Mobilization Units, and it could use it to put pressure on its dissidents. Consequently, will Grand Ayatollah Sistani take real actions if Tehran uses the IRGC to eliminate its opponents in Iraq physically.
No one can say with certainty what will happen in the future as clerics in both countries are known to be unpredictable. Consequently, the Iraqi people will simply have to wait to see. Now it is Tehran’s move.