by Shireen Hunter
Last week, the Iraqi Shia cleric and the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the power behind the throne.
In view of the Saudi monarchy’s rather dark record of treating Shias both in the kingdom itself and elsewhere, including Iraq, this visit is rather unusual. Muqtada could not have forgotten how Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein who killed several members of his family, including his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and the famed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, his uncle. As someone who represents Shias in Iraq, he cannot be oblivious to the fact that, while he was received by MbS, the Saudis had the entire Shia-inhabited city of Al Awamiah in a state of near siege and were planning to execute several Shia Saudi citizens.
However, Muqtada is not merely the scion of a famed Shia clerical family. He is also a very ambitious man who believes, with some justification, that given his family’s sacrifices during Saddam’s rule, he has a claim to Iraq’s political and spiritual leadership. In fact, he has felt this way since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
At the time, however, he was handicapped by his youth—he was only 30 years old in 2003—and by his lack of adequate religious training. Now at age 43 and after several years of extra training, some of it in Iran, he feels that the time has come to assert himself. In view of constitutional and other barriers to direct involvement of clerics in running the government, he is unlikely to seek any direct political role. But he certainly would want to be the kingmaker and exert decisive influence on the choice of Iraq’s political leaders.
Despite his close family links with Iran, and the fact that he has sought refuge there at times of danger, Muqtada does not want Iran to be too influential in Iraq. Once Ayatollah Sistani, now 87 years old, passes on, Muqtada would certainly not be happy if Iran were to decide who should be the country’s next spiritual leader. He probably feels that Iraq and Iraqis have a greater claim to the mantle of Shia Imams, most of whom are buried in Iraq, than the Iranians.
Nor is he alone in feeling this way. While Muqtada was visiting MbS, Ammar Hakim left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has been closely identified with Iran. Hakim is the scion of another Iraqi Shia aristocratic family, whose father Ayatollah Baqir Hakim spent many years in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Moreover, there was some speculation that Ammar Hakim would also be going to Riyadh soon. Two years older than Muqtada, Hakim might also be thinking about Iraq’s shifting politics, both clerical and governmental, especially in the aftermath of Ayatollah Sistani’s passing that is bound to happen before long. In that case, it would be interesting to see how the competition between a new generation of Sadrs and Hakims evolves.
Both Sadr and Hakim must also have felt the changing winds of politics in America, especially the more confrontational US policy towards Iran. Thus, they want to distance themselves from Iran and widen their political options both within Iraq and regionally.
It was clear from the beginning that, once recovered from the trauma of the Saddam years and the 2003 war, Iraq’s Shia establishment would assert itself and try to reclaim Najaf’s position as the main Shia spiritual and educational center vis a vis Qom in Iran.
Politically, too, Iraq’s relations with Iran have never been as close as the Western media has claimed. Iraqi governments, including during the time of Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership, have not been under Iran’s thumb by any means. Quite the opposite, they have not even accepted Iran’s most basic demands. That includes the 1975 Algiers agreement signed in 1975, which settled their dispute over the Shatt al-Arab river. Iraqi governments have ignored Iran’s pleas for more cooperation in fighting sand storms originating in Iraq, which are choking Iranian cities, and have put hurdles in the way of Iranian merchants and tourists.
On the contrary, it has been Iran that, because of its peculiar foreign policy priorities, has tolerated Iraq’s behavior and continued to offer help when it was threatened by extremist groups, notably the Islamic State.
Then, there is the ethnic factor. Iraqi Shias, are overwhelmingly Arab, or at least deeply Arabized. As such, they feel more at home with Arab countries than with Iran. If Iraq has not yet been completely integrated into the Arab political system, it’s because many Sunni Arab states had problems with a Shia-dominated Iraqi government. But it was only a matter of time before Iraq would turn to the Arab world. The Sadr visit to Saudi Arabia could be the beginning of Iraq’s real return to the Arab fold, given that Saudi Arabia has been in the forefront of opposition to Iraqi Shias.
However, one swallow does not a summer make. There is too much baggage between Iraq’s Shias and other Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia. The latter must do much more before it can gain the Shias’ confidence, first in the kingdom itself vis a vis its own disenfranchised Shias.
It must also accept that the Shias will have a strong role in politics and government in an even moderately democratic and secular Iraq. Can Saudi Arabia stomach this? Or is Sadr’s visit just a ploy to play on the ambitions of a young and impatient leader and pave the way to the return of Sunni supremacy?
Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s real reasons for reaching out to Sadr, there is a limit to how far he can go in befriending the Saudis and antagonizing Iran. Although by no means dominant, Iran does have supporters in Iraq. Cozying up too much to the Saudis could create another source of dispute in the country and further fragment its politics, this time among Shias themselves. Perhaps weakening Shias in Iraq is the real Saudi reason for its overture to Muqtada.
But if Saudi Arabia is sincere in reaching out to Iraqi Shias without demanding that they sever their ties to Iran, this rapprochement could be very positive and even help defuse Saudi-Iranian tensions. But to discern the Saudis’ real objectives and nudge them in a constructive direction would require great sensitivity, diplomatic dexterity, and self-restraint. One can only hope that Muqtada al-Sadr possesses these qualities. If he doesn’t, not much good can come out of this visit.
Photo: Muqtada al Sadr (Wikimedia Commons)