Marsin Alshamary is a fellow with the Middle East Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently working on a book that examines the role of Shia clerics in anti-government protests in Iraq from 1920 to 2020. Prior to this, she was a post-doctoral fellow with the Brookings Institution, where she published two reports on Iraq: “Postwar Development of Civil Society in Iraq’s Mid-Euphrates Region” and “The Protester Paradox: Why Do Anti-Islamist activists Look Toward Clerical Leadership?” She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied Shia clerics and protest. Diwan interviewed her on August 2 to get her perspective on the ongoing political crisis in Iraq.
Michael Young: How high is the risk of a military confrontation between the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr and the parties joined in the Coordination Framework, alongside the partisans of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki?
Marsin Alshamary: The risk of armed confrontation between various paramilitary groups in Iraq has been a source of concern since the end of the war with the Islamic State, when it became apparent that many armed groups would not be disbanded or would fully integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces. The risk increased during the period of government formation and has now reached a dangerous level after Muqtada al-Sadr announced his intention to challenge the political system. The photos being circulated of Maliki surrounded by armed men, or encircled by the leadership of an armed paramilitary group, indicate his willingness to resort to violence. His track record of violence against the Sadrists is another worrying sign.
However, there are other equally powerful voices in the Coordination Framework—including Hadi al-Ameri—who have expresssed a desire for dialogue. The recent withdrawal of the Coordination Framework from an effort to counter Sadrist protestors around the International Zone was also a deescalatory move that signalled that violence may yet be avoided. However, because everyone is armed to the teeth, it may be harder to avoid unplanned violence (rather than violence instigated and ordered by political leaders).
MY: The big question here is what does this situation mean for Iran in the long term? And why have the Iranians seemed so incapable of putting a halt to the escalation in hostility between the Coordination Framework and Maliki on the one side, and Sadr on the other?
MA: Iran prefers a stable and weak Iraq and has put its weight behind encouraging the Coordination Framework to move along with the government-formation process after the Sadrists resigned from parliament in June. It is not clear yet whether the Iranians have attempted to mediate between the Coordination Framework and the Sadrists, but they are likely hindered from doing so by Sadr’s clear anti-Iran rhetoric. It is to Iran’s advantage to call for dialogue and a peaceful resolution between the Coordination Framework and the Sadrists, as an intra-Shia armed conflict would be destabilizing for the region and would cost Iran valuable allies—the Iraqi government and specifically Iraqi Shia political parties.
MY: Media outlets in Iran with ties to the state and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have become increasingly critical of Sadr in recent days. Does this signal we may be nearing a rupture in Iran’s relations with Sadr, or does he continue to have support inside the Iranian clerical establishment?
MA: It is important not to conflate clerical ties and government ties, even in Iran. Sadr’s ties to Iran in the past have been of both types—with the government as well as with clerical circles in Qom. There are also ties between Sadr and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran. The likelihood of a full rupture is slim, but Sadr understands that the popular sentiment in Iraq is anti-Iran and it gives him credibility to style himself as such.
MY: Ultimately, what outcome do you see from this crisis, which has been going on since the Iraqi parliamentary elections of October 2021? Will it be resolved through a compromise, or do you see this as a fundamental break in the country’s post-2003 order, and even in relations among the major Iraqi Shia factions?
MA: It is not a fundamental break as much as it is a natural consequence of Iraq having stabilized external existential threats to its political system. Political actors in Iraq—particularly the Shia—now have the space to maximize their power internally rather than fight for state survival. In the past, existential crises—such as the conflict with the Islamic State or the threat of Kurdish secessionism—drove the Shia political parties to unite. Now that the country no longer faces such crises, Shia political leaders are vying for monopoly over the leadership of their ethno-sectarian group (and of course, the spoils of that monopoly). The worst-case scenario is that the competition among the Shia will lead to a civil war in Iraq, but this is unlikely because any sign of violence will provoke the intervention of the religious establishment in Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Other scenarios include a successful Sadrist bid for a revision of the electoral law and early elections, although it is likely that the turnout in such a manufactured election will be lower than previous elections. The lowest turnout Iraq has seen was 43.54 percent in 2021 (according to official sources). Another possibility is that through dialogue a different candidate for the premiership will be selected who is acceptable to the Sadrists (other than the current candidate, Mohammed al-Sudani, whom they reject), and they can be appeased to accept a new government.