The Third Coming of Muqtada Al-Sadr, Who Will Benefit?

Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi nationalist formerly known for his deadly attacks on US troops, as well as his temporary alliance with Iran, is back in the saddle as the ultimate winner of the recent Iraqi elections.

He cannot become a prime minister, but he is already an influential force, claiming that his interest is in ridding the country of foreign influences, including Iran and the United States, and creating an inclusive government that is neither Sunni nor Shia, neither Arab nor Kurd, but focused on addressing everyone’s interests and pursuing common goals. At first glance, this is is an ideal scenario for the US and for the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain).  At the very least, Sadr seems to be promising to keep Iraq neutral and away from pernicious Islamic Republic involvement.

However, the situation may be a little more complicated. As FDD’s Romany Shaker reports in his article “Iranian General Soleimani in Iraq as Post-Election Government Formation Talks Begin”, Iran, though distrustful of Sadr due to his tendency for self-interested opportunism at the expense of his former backers, is too deeply enmeshed in Iraq, as well as its plans for regional hegemony to give up its quest for power the moment Sadr has ordered Soleimani to live in Kurdistan, where Soleimani is currently visiting. Iran’s land corridor to Syria is not to be abandoned; Iran has gotten a number of major Shi’a militias on the dole, and ideological indoctrination of the locals is being pursued thanks to Iranian subsidies for Khomeinist-brand education.

Therefore to think that Iranian influence is only measured by the presence of the IRGC on the ground is a mistake that Sadr’s pro-Western backers are making. Whether he himself is aware that Iran has become a cultural influence at least as much as a military contingent in Iraq remains to be seen. Part of what helped Sadr rise to power included the alignment of secularists, ranging from Communists and hard left to smaller liberal parties, who were looking for any way to stop the rise of a pro-Iranian cadre.  In response, Iran is looking to merge the parties of Abadi and his competitor and predecessor al-Maliki, known for his virulently anti-Kurdish and anti-Western commentary. Whether this coalition ever pans out remains to be seen.

Sadr is an unlikely savior, however, As Fehim Tastekin speculated in the Al-Monitor article “Iraq Elections: Will Sadr Seek A New Beginning with Turkey?”, Erdogan may be the biggest ultimate beneficiary of Sadr’s rise. As the details, Sadr gave a cold shoulder to the Iranian ambassador to demonstrate his displeasure with Iranian involvement, but despite Ankara’s failure to abandon its base in Iraq, met with the Turkish Ambassador. Turkey has the least to lose, as it views Iran as a competitor in the region and seeks to restrain its influence. Turkey is not seen by Sadr as an immediate threat, which leaves Erdogan a potential opening to come in – as a business partner, a containment against Saudi and US influence, and possibly, later, as an ideological influence among the Sunnis, in contrast to KSA and UAE, which to Sadr, are also not welcome.

On the other hand, it is also doubtful what steps, if any, Sadr can and will actually take to physically remove remnants of Iranian and American presence in Iraq. Will the Shi’a militias Abadi integrated into the Iraqi forces stay loyal to Sadr government, given that they continue to receive funding from the Iranian regime?  Will IRGC peacefully retracts its steps from Kurdistan or is Soleimani involved in further entrenchment of the Al-Quds force in the area in anticipation of potential military action? And where does the US military come in? Will the US quietly withdraw as soon as Sadr inevitably starts applying pressure? How will the new government handle the continuous problems with ISIS, which, having lost its lands reemerged to stage physical attacks mostly against the Kurdish population?

As Shaker postulates, Soleimani’s additional objective in Iraq is to facilitate the formation of a pro-Iranian coalition. Should that fail, however, Iran will not give up and try to play the cards it was dealt with, primarily either by coopting or weakening pro-Sadr forces. Sadr himself, while not above selling out to the highest bidder, finally has an opportunity to exercise somewhat independent power with generous backing from the Gulf States, and increasing support from the US, which prefers the prospects of an untimely withdrawal to the specter of Iran’s growing influence in the region. Furthermore, warming up to these countries may mean that Sadr is reconsidering kicking out US troops and may even welcome some limited influence from the Gulf States. Ultimately, however, he likely views these arrangements as temporary at best. Sadr, however, realizes that he will feel pressure no matter what.

The Iranian regime currently is at a slight disadvantage, as it’s under duress from being rocked by continuous internal protests, the coming brunt  of the US sanctions and withdrawal by European countries, greater scrutiny and possible attacks on its proxies, including Hizbullah, and the attacks on its propaganda machinery in the US, which is no longer listening to NIAC at the government level and which has just ended the visa for foreign investors, many of which were Iranian government officials and their contacts looking to cause problems and influence policy in the US Department of Justice and Homeland Security. If the protests inside Iran continue, it may be forced to withdraw some of its forces from Iraq to deal with the internal situation. Israel’s attack on Iranian military sites in Syria may have destroyed up to 50% of its weaponry and certainly shook the image of strength the regime sought to project. For that reason, it will be both more difficult and more important to retain Iraq. Retaining Iraq means staving off the encroaching Saudi influence while creating a\nother continuous headache and distraction for the United States.

First, Iran may try to outplay Sadr with the above-mentioned coalition. Should that fail, it may look to control Sadr by offering him a portion of power with Maliki, Ameri, or Abadi in exchange for Sadr’s support. Sadr is not looking to give up his power so soon after finally winning it; for that reason, Iran’s future actions are likely to take a more ominous undertone. For instance, it may create an internal time bomb by inciting and weaponizing Islamist Shi’a and Sunni groups against Sadr’s government. It may even coopt ISIS, as it once did with Al Qaeda, to attack an already delicate security situation. Iran may also look to build common ground with Erdogan, behind the scenes, utilizing Turkey’s somewhat ambiguous status to create additional pressure on Sadr in counterweight to the Americans and the Saudis. The Iranian regime, long used to playing divisive games, may try to play off different Shi’a factions against one another, including those in Sadr’s own coalition, pitting his nationalist supporters against Communists. Most importantly, the regime is well aware that Sadr’s politics are anathema to the majority of Kurds, who are still pining for the results of the independence referendum. That’s where the regime’s wild card may come in.

That wild card is Sahsuwar Abdulwahid’s newly formed New Generation party, which won a surprising four seats in the Parliament. Additionally, by arming the pro-Iran PUK party and launching attacks on pro-Barzani Kurdish parties the day of the election, as a result of these parties demanding manual recounts due to fraudulent interference with the electronic voting and the sudden growth in PUK numbers at the expense of KRG tallies, Iran has guaranteed a space within Kurdish politics which was minimal at best prior to this election.  To those watching closely, however, it will become instantly obvious that Iran is playing a clever, long-term, and double game by using PUK to clear the path and using the pro-Maliki Abdulwahid to clear the way. Abdulwahid is Iran’s way of creating a pro-Iran, pro-Maliki force within the Kurdish region.

Abdulwahid had in the past come out against the Kurdish independent referendum and then used his station, NRT to bash both the PUK and KRG for alleged corruption. He may well turn out to be just as fickle as Sadr himself, but for now, he’s playing into Iran’s interests. First,  the agenda is to play on the dissatisfaction of the Kurdish population with the economic and political conditions in the country, while offering an undefined third way out. The third way consists largely of disrupting and bringing down the allegedly corrupt two party system, which, according to Abdulwahid’s branding was imposed on the Kurds by the Americans after the fall of Saddam.

There’s actually a Sadr-like undertone to this line of thinking, which is anything but coincidental. Sadr was surging in the weeks prior to an election, and the secularist dissatisfaction with the Iranian presence was long noted. Unlike many Westerners who had placed their bets on Abadi and were surprised at the final outcome, the regime was watching these developments closely and had carefully insinuated itself into the Kurdish parlance with the help of Abdulwahid for over a year ago. Abdulwahid is a deeply flawed messenger for an unpopular and hard sell; he is best known for gypping his own staffers and mercenary security out of payments while living a lavish lifestyle. Nevertheless, in the absence of another savior figure who’d be happy to play Iran’s game, he will have to do. Abdulwahid may never reach Sadr’s levels of national recognition and popularity, but he may draw away enough of desperate Kurds away from the traditional parties to make a difference in the formation of any future Abadi-Maliki coalition building, if not immediately then down the road, while the regime plays influence games with Sadr.

Second, by undermining Kurdish credibility, Abdulwahid can play an important role in separating some of the Kurds from the US influence and placing them in the Iranian camp.  We have seen an early effort at this shortly prior to the elections, when Abdulwahid planned a last-minute propaganda trip for young predominantly Jewish American professionals, mostly journalists and various gullible influencers, with the help of a group of former young Obama administration advisers under the name of Six Point Strategies. Neither the SPS nor the NRT-driven effort of bringing in “journalist-like” observers to Erbil and Soleimaniya to meet the local players appeared to have any backing or approval from CIA, the State Department, or any other US agency which would lead an astute observer to conclude that the effort was 1. perhaps deliberately last minute and 2. had no legitimacy with the US coalition nor any sort of legitimate authority, but rather mirrored Doha’s propaganda trip for American Jewish influencers who then went on to bad mouth Qatar’s regional rivals while singing praises to its economic growth and supposedly progressive glory.

Abdulwahid’s calculation was similar to NIAC’s efforts in the United States: to gain legitimacy for his TV station and party at the expense not only of the US’ traditional Kurdish allies, but at the credibility of the next generation of rising American stars in media, politics, and interfaith efforts. If 50 young Americans were willing to entertain an entity with a reputation of going against mainstream Kurdish interests and largely in line with Iranian and pro-Russian political line, clearly the US government is not in tune with the foreign policy interests and views of the next generation of its own population, and thus, its influence in Iraq is easily discreditable. One of Abdulawahid’s candidates in the election allegedly was an intermediary between Abdulwahid and the Six Point Strategies in the planning of the trip, with SPS being tasked to recruit volunteers.

Given that the New Generation has had little to offer with the exception of “outing” PUK and KRG, it remains to be seen what sort of influence, if any, the party will play in the Parliament, but to be sure, its early success is a harbinger of future such efforts. The trip fell through under mysterious circumstances very shortly before the group was supposed to travel to Doha or Amman before flying into Erbil.  The election was disrupted, largely fraudulent.  But most of the ISIS-related incidents which were cited by the trip organizers as the reasons for cancelation did not come through. Would the Americans be targeted for abduction and political ransom extortion as many dual national travelers to Iran have found themselves? That much is not clear; however, Abdulwahid will likely continue to enjoy Iranian support so long as he is willing to play the role of a Kurdish “spoiler”.

If Sadr is not amenable to diplomatic overtures, Iran will likely consider taking stronger measures to weaken his popularity including exploiting the influence of Islamists of all stripes as it has done in the past. However, Iran’s most important quest is ultimately to dislodge the secularists and leftists from the Coalition, living Sadr with little political support. And on the ground, Iran is bound to pursue a continuation of its preexisting policy, but now with an added agenda of discrediting nationalists as frauds with little to offer. To that effect, Iran will pursue multiple political lines of inquiry simultaneously, with the hope that one of them will pan out. Mirroring Saudi Arabia’s focus on promoting young dynamic leadership on all levels, Iraq’s election played on the same theme, with many parties encouraging younger candidates to run in vast numbers. The turn out was still relatively low as most Iraqis, despite these changes, still, believe the system to be corrupt, and think that even younger politicians may be part of that circus.

However, both Sadr and Abdulwahid sought to utilize that theme to their advantage. Indeed, Iran is learning new tricks though that has not yet transformed the political landscape inside the Islamic Republic itself, still led by the tired corrupt octogenarian ayatollahs and their families. Meeting with Abdulwahid on May 22, 2018, Sadr emphasized the engagement of youth in battling the dual threats of corruption and sectarianism, his governance theme, which Abdulwahid likewise embraced. Ironically, the two discussed voter fraud which positively influenced the numbers of some parties – likely referencing PUK, among others.  Abdulwahid, in seeming agreement with Sadr, stated the importance of breaking existing standards and speaking with one voice and stated that currently there are Kurdish parties who cannot speak for all Kurds.

The implication of this comment is obvious. Abdulwahid looks to work with Sadr on the theme that will directly benefit Iran – the break down of the current system among the Kurds, and the imposition of a new pro-Iranian single voice on all of them, while also looking to help Sadr with throttling the rising Kurdish nationalism allegedly to benefit pan-Iraqi nationalism. Abdulwahid seems to have openly embraced Sadr’s “paternalistic” outlook. Still, don’t be fooled. With time, Abdulwahid and his allies will look to redirect Sadr’s nationalism towards serving Iran’s interest, first using it to strike down internal enemies, even if it means temporarily benefiting the US and Saudis in creating a perception of anti-Iranian unity, and then sowing pro-Iranian sentiment to the extent that Sadr will either have no choice but to increasingly work with his former backers or until he himself is outed by popular demand, if not by coup.

by Irina Tsukerman

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