Are domestic protests over economic conditions likely to increase Iran’s willingness to come to a final agreement with the United States to restore the JCPOA?
The Middle East is full of local dramas reminiscent of events depicted in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” the sword and sorcery fantasy about power struggles in mythical kingdoms. With all its chaos and bloodshed, and dozens of armed groups and militias contending for influence and authority, Iraq is a scene of many such dramas. Close observers, including the Gulf Arab states, need to be sure not to overlook some of the most important political “dragons” roaming the Iraqi strategic landscape, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of Iraq for the Gulf Arab states. Along with Iran, Iraq shares the Gulf region with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Iraq historically was the great barrier to Iranian ambitions, but is now seen more as an asset for Tehran than an obstacle. Yet Iraq remains part of the Arab political scene, and has been careful not to break entirely with the mainstream of the Arab states or the Arab League. And the whole region has a major stake in Iraq’s struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its efforts to provide security and regain stability. The Gulf states have a great deal at stake in Iraq, so political developments in that country, particularly regarding its national viability and ability to keep Iran at arms length, are of enormous interest to them.
The most dynamic, and disruptive, force in contemporary Iraqi politics is the 42-year-old Sadr. The perennial opponent of successive Iraqi regimes, starting with Saddam Hussein’s, has over the years fought British, U.S., and Iraqi forces in repeated armed confrontations. He was identified as “wanted, dead or alive” during the early years of the U.S. occupation. Nonetheless he is still very much alive and well today, both physically and politically. His playbook includes a strategy for attaining the biggest prize he has yet attempted: a total and simultaneous takeover of the religious and political centers of power in Iraq.
In a disintegrating country fraught with nearly unprecedented levels of corruption and ineptitude, that scenario may ultimately not be farfetched. One huge obstacle, however, stands between Sadr and the realization of this goal, and it has so far proved insurmountable despite major recent demonstrations by thousands of his followers. That obstacle is that U.S. and Iranian support have successfully propped up a string of successive Iraqi governments safely ensconced inside the heavily guarded concrete walls of the legendary Green Zone.
In an effort to force the cancellation of party and sectarian quotas, approximately 70,000 protesters, mostly Sadr followers, stormed the fortressed Parliament in April. But they quickly made a U-turn and went home, leaving behind only some broken luxury furniture, particularly a slightly blood stained white sofa that later appeared in a much-mocked picture depicting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gazing at it with sorrow. In May, hundreds of those protesters returned to storm Abadi’s office and other government buildings inside the Green Zone.
Sadr is not unfamiliar with defeats, frustrations, and even prolonged house arrest. He saw his father and two brothers assassinated by Saddam’s regime in 1999. He was placed under house arrest for four years, and his armed Mahdi militia was almost crushed in Najaf and Basra in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Meanwhile, his family’s 40-year-long Shia religious authority has been overshadowed by the much more revered and reticent Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sadr’s latest disruptions have been perceived as a destabilizing factor by both Washington and Tehran. His whipping up enraged mobs through feisty sermons at the gate of the Green Zone plainly illustrates his determination to present himself as a nationalist and nonsectarian solution to widespread popular dissatisfaction and frustration with the rule of the leading ruling Shia parties.
“Iran out, out, Baghdad is free,” chanted hundreds of Sadr protesters from inside the Green Zone. A video shows the protesters denouncing the role Major General Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is playing in Iraq. “Hey, Qassim Suleimani, we are the sons of Sadr,” they chanted. Iran did not wait long before issuing its response, which came loud and clear from Ali Wilayti, the political advisor of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “The Iraqi people will fight back against the political groups” aiming to “change [the] political equation in Iraq,” Wilayti said referring to Sadr-inspired groups. The U.S. side was equally supportive of the Abadi government, with a visit to Baghdad by Vice President Joseph Biden, followed by a phone call to the prime minister from President Barack Obama. Obama emphasized the “critical importance of improving the security of Baghdad and the International Zone.” The U.S. priority in Iraq remains focused on managing the war against ISIL in Mosul and Anbar.
The Iraqi dynamic has become so entangled that “mallusa” is probably the word that best describes what is happening. Originating from Iraqi slang, this term describes a situation at the very height of confusion. In recent weeks, many more U.S. and Iranian advisors have entered Iraq to join the fight against ISIL. Suleimani was spotted with the Iranian-backed Shia popular mobilization forces on the outskirts of Fallujah. Was this Iran’s response to Sadr followers chanting “Iran out”? Or is Tehran’s goal to move its paramilitary assets even closer to Saudi Arabia’s borders? Whatever the true aim may have been, the move predictably provoked a quick rebuke from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who called on Iran to stop meddling in Iraq’s affairs, whether by invitation of the Iraqi government or not.
Sadr announced at the beginning of May that he was entering a period of self-imposed seclusion in protest of the Abadi government’s failure to implement reforms. This is a seemingly well-timed decision to avoid appearing out of sync with the national imperative of fighting ISIL, as the Iraqi security forces, backed by Shia militias and Iranian and U.S. forces, started their attack on Fallujah.
Among his many recent tactical successes, Sadr appears to be sending multiple messages to various addresses simultaneously. His most important signal was a domestic political challenge to former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who controls the most powerful Shia militia, and is busy planning a pseudo-military coup to return to power, according to a prominent Kurdish official. Sadr was basically warning him to back off. His next message was aimed squarely at Abadi, who appears to be emerging as one of the weakest Iraqi leaders ever. It’s another warning: “Be careful, because I’m coming at you.” He was also addressing Sistani, who in recent months has stopped issuing political statements scolding the partisan government for its corruption. In that case, the message is: “If you drop this issue, it belongs to me.” And finally he was sending a clear signal to Iran, which is empowering Sadr’s main rival, Maliki, to prevent any developments that might weaken Tehran’s growing control over Iraq. And the message to Iran is, “This is our country, not yours.” Sadr is therefore trying to present a nationalistic and nonsectarian face to his personal and factional political ambitions in order to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of Iraqi opinion and to assuage concerns from the Gulf Arab states, which are meant to be enticed by his anti-Iranian and quasi-Arab nationalistic messaging. It’s a slick exercise in political marketing, but its overall impact on his prospects for power, and how widely it is believed both inside Iraq and in the region, including among the Gulf states, remains to be seen.
On June 5, the Iraqi Parliament was called back into session in Baghdad, as Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces were fighting ISIL in the south and north of Iraq. ISIL’s “days are numbered,” tweeted Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. This is undoubtedly good news for all parties, including the Gulf states. But the bad news is that once ISIL goes, the real battle over who will rule Iraq, and how, is set to begin. Sadr is just one powerful player in an Iraqi “Game of Thrones” that boasts many other actors with conflicting interests. Just like with the HBO series, the world, the region, and especially the Gulf states with their major stakes in the future of that country, can expect several more highly charged seasons before this story reaches its conclusion and the political future of Iraq is, at last, determined.
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