Muhanad Seloom | Associate lecturer at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom
Muqtada al-Sadr’s nationalist agenda undermines Iran’s unchallenged influence in Iraq. To create strategic spheres of influence across the Middle East, Iran has supported a militarized form of sectarian nationalism. Such nationalism is part of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of “exporting the revolution.” Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi militias, and the Syrian regime are all part of this anti-Western, anti-Israeli “axis of resistance,” and even if Sunni groups such as Hamas are also a part of it, they are an exception to the rule that confirms the sectarianism underlying Iran’s regional alliances.
In contrast, Sadr has adopted a nationalist approach focused on strengthening Iraq’s independence and sovereignty. That means that Iran’s model of sectarian nationalism will be challenged by Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism. Sadr is working on ending Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq. His nationalistic project is not likely to be accepted by Iran. To maintain its influence in Iraq for at least the next four years, Tehran will respond with threats. Currently, Iran’s influence is secured through its strong ties with local militias trained and funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as the Hezbollah Movement in Iraq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as through the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition, which together won over 70 seats in Iraq’s May elections.
Harith Hasan | Senior research fellow at the Central European University
Muqtada al-Sadr is not anti-Iranian, he is better described as an Iraqi nationalist. Therefore, measuring the impact of his politics on Iran’s influence depends on how the Iranians perceive Iraqi nationalism and whether they are willing to tolerate a more independent, Iraq-centric approach by Shi‘a actors.
There are two main dynamics that shaped Sadr’s attitude toward Iranian influence in the last few years. First, Iran’s support for groups that dissented from his movement, such as ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Recently, some of these groups have grown militarily, financially, and politically, sometime posing a threat to Sadr’s influence in his strongholds.
Second, given his support base, mostly formed of underprivileged Shi‘a of southern origin, Sadr embraced an anti-establishment discourse that appealed to his base. He adopted an active oppositional role and a reformist agenda that targeted some of the Shi‘a Islamist parties and figures close to the Iranians, especially former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr’s current alliance with the leftist and liberal groups that prioritized an Iraq-centric agenda and demanded major reforms is a continuation of this path.
While Iran may not be interested in actively opposing Sadr’s internal agenda, it will continue watching his political choices to see whether these could significantly reduce the influence of its allies and serve the interests of rivals such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. It may prefer to contain Sadr within an arrangement that neither excludes him nor gives him a controlling role. Interestingly, this is an objective shared with the U.S. As for Sadr, he was careful to clarify that his objective is not to confront Iran but to assert Iraq’s independence. It is not going to be a zero-sum-game. There is room to accommodate the interests of both sides.
Joost Hiltermann | Program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group
However much Muqtada al-Sadr might like to, the answer is no. Apart from the fact that he is not targeting Iran in particular, but has any type of external interference in Iraqi affairs in his sights, Sadr lacks the political strength, for now, to counter Iran’s infiltration of Iraq’s security institutions. Whatever governing coalition emerges following recent elections, and assuming Sadr’s bloc will be part of it, Sadr’s power will be diluted by his governing partners.
While there is a broader desire among Iraq’s ruling elites to curb Iranian influence, the state remains weak and therefore vulnerable to penetration. The response to external interference is not to fight it, but to rebuild Iraqi governing institutions. Nor does Iran feel threatened by Sadr, or by an Iraqi government in which he plays a role. Tehran knows it can use its local allies to keep him leashed. Iran’s greatest enemy in Iraq is its own overconfidence.
Loulouwa Al Rachid | Co-director of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center
There is no doubt that Muqtada al-Sadr’s narrow victory in Iraq’s May 12 legislative elections poses a serious challenge to Iranian influence in the country, but also one that remains manageable for Tehran. Building on his immense personal popularity and his credentials as heir to a prestigious Arab nationalist and Iraqi nationalist clerical dynasty, Sadr has increasingly upped his populist rhetoric against Iran. His followers immediately celebrated their victory by chanting, “Iran out, out! Baghdad remains free.” Since then his aides have echoed the widespread resentment against Iranian interference, stressing the unchecked flow of Iranian imports, to the detriment of whatever is left of local Iraqi production. They have also accused Iran of a Machiavellian plan to destroy Iraq’s youth by inundating the neighboring southern governorates with drugs. Add to these accusations the still unresolved issues of water, oilfields, and border settlements between Iraq and Iran and the balance of Iraqi politics could possibly tilt in favor of Tehran’s enemies, including the United States and its Gulf allies.
However, Iran also knows the Sadrist movement intimately, having militarily and ideologically trained most of its commanders since 2003. The Iranians have in the past kept the movement under control through a ruthless policy of divide and rule, with some of the most prominent Sadrists defecting to become the new leaders of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces. The lack of discipline within the Sadrist movement, in particular the absence of credible middle-ranking cadres, and the poor performance of its parliamentary bloc in the past only make Iran’s task of containing the Sadrists easier. And if Muqtada al-Sadr resorts to his favored tactic, namely street politics and militia threats, Iran could unleash its own proxies against him. After all, they are organic heirs, albeit illegitimate ones, of Muqtada’s late father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999.