June 7, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: The Evolution of an Iraqi Nationalist
As of early June 2012, Iraqi Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — often described in equal measure as "charismatic" and "anti-America" — has made public demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki that have placed the cleric at such odds with his Iranian patrons that al-Sadr traveled to Iran on June 4 to discuss the unfolding situation. This development presents Western policymakers with intriguing, and unexpected, options in the ongoing effort to restrain Iranian regional influence.
Specifically, Al-Sadr's position on Iraqi-styled democracy presents an opportunity to highlight legitimate political and religious differences between the Iraq and Iran, while also bolstering an Iraqi nationalism that draws concrete distinctions with its eastern neighbor. While the tension between al-Sadr and Iran is somewhat new, the reasons behind it — the cleric's call for al-Malaki's resignation — are actually consistent with both al-Sadr's positions and actions since 2003. As an outspoken advocate of Iraqi sovereignty and self-determination, al-Sadr has arguably long been far more of a nationalist than perhaps once assessed.
Al-Sadr's Evolving Agenda
In this unfolding geopolitical mystery, there are two vital "unknowns." First, it is very possible that al-Sadr has overplayed his hand in terms of his ability to distance himself from Iranian support and influence while maintaining his power base among Iraqi Shi'a. Second, it is uncertain if the growing chasm between al-Sadr and Iran will provide the international community with sufficient room to maneuver.
Al-Sadr's call for al-Malaki's resignation was reasonably polite, yet pointed, as one would expect between the two rival Shia power brokers. It would, however, be inaccurate to suggest that the call stemmed fundamentally from simple jealousy or competitiveness. Al-Sadr clearly remains concerned about the primacy of the Shi'a identity in Iraq, an understandable position given the murder of both his father and father-in-law by the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein. At the same time, it appears al-Sadr is deeply concerned with keeping a dictatorial leader — Shi'a or Sunna — from holding power in Baghdad.
From the onset of the 2003 invasion that quickly toppled Hussein, al-Sadr has objected to power imposed from above, first with the occupying forces, then with elections conducted under occupation, and now with a two-term prime minister with increasingly authoritarian characteristics. That al-Malaki, in al-Sadr's opinion, holds either too much power or wields it inappropriately might be more important to al-Sadr than the fact that al-Malaki is clearly Iran's man in Baghdad. This might seem surprising to those who view al-Sadr as merely a puppet of Iran or a religious fanatic (or both); but, as mentioned above, it actually fits with al-Sadr's behavior over nearly a decade. Al-Sadr's actions suggest that his opposition to oppression extends beyond the majority Shi'a population to all Iraqis regardless of the cause. While his definition of democracy might not be perfectly aligned with Western standards, it appears to parallel the Western perspective far more consistently than al-Malaki's.
A Rebuff to Iran
In an attempt to rein in al-Sadr, Iranian Shia cleric and al-Sadr family mentor, Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Husseini al-Haeri, issued a fatwa — one clearly aimed at al-Sadr — that stated it was against Islam for anyone to support secular candidates. Al-Sadr rejected this fatwa, arguing that it was impossible to separate secular and religious members of the same bloc, a rather western statement given the context. Such a rejection of the fatwa should not be dismissed lightly given al-Haeri's substantial influence over al-Sadr's family and his relatively low religious standing among Shi'a clerics. Once again, this suggests a nationalist maturity that might run counter to Iranian designs.
In his call for al-Malki's resignation, al-Sadr thanked the prime minister for not allowing for a form of federalism among the provinces in the south, even as al-Sadr has maintained functioning relations with the largely separatist Kurds in the North. This strongly suggests al-Sadr is concerned with keeping Iraq intact despite sectarian differences (though holding on to the oil-rich fields of the north might certainly play a part in al-Sadr's position). Were he simply an Iranian pawn, al-Sadr might have pushed for a looser arrangement of federalism in which Iran would assume de facto control of southern Iraq. This further suggests al-Sadr is more a nationalist than a strict religious fundamentalist, one who perhaps is more amenable than previously assumed to enter into discussions on how to further Iraqi democracy and sovereignty apart from a purely Shi'a identity. The nature of this ongoing dynamic is therefore likely to provide the alert policymaker with potential avenues for promoting Iraqi stability and democracy outside of al-Malaki, avenues that might realistically include al-Sadr.
The timing of this latest Iraqi political intrigue is of particular importance in that the recent spike in Iraqi oil production is helping to offset potential price increases due to upcoming sanctions on Iranian oil transactions. This puts Tehran in the curious position where it would likely prefer a lowered oil price — and therefore economic output — from its Shi'a neighbor in hopes of lessening world-wide commitment to Iranian sanctions. In the coming months, Iran will seek every practical opportunity to bind itself closer to Baghdad, knowing that much of the international community is heavily invested in Iraq's ultimate success. However, tensions with al-Sadr will continue to complicate this unified front, and those on the Iranian side who participated in the recent discussions with al-Sadr will certainly keep this center stage in their strategic thinking. Western policymakers would no doubt profit by doing the same.
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