Iranian commander pressures Iraqi Muqtada al-Sadr for ‘inclusive’ approach to Shia parties
The official website of Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, published on February 8 a brief statement noting that Sadr received Iranian Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani on the same day.
The website did not post a photo of the two at the reunion, or mention any details even after it ended. However, Sadr tweeted a few hours later, “Neither eastern nor western – a national majority government.”
With the expression “neither eastern nor western”, Sadr means that the government should not be subject to either Iran or the United States. According to Arabic Khamenei website, Sadr cites earlier speeches by the leader of Iran’s revolution in Iran Ruhollah Khomeini.
This is the third time that Qaani has visited Iraq after the approval of the election results on December 27, to facilitate the formation of a new government. He had previously attempted to meet Muqtada al-Sadr, but that only happened on the last visit. Qani was wearing a message from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to a source close to Sadr’s office who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “the message was about the need to preserve the Shia house and bridge the gap between the Sadrist movement and the coordination framework that includes armed Shia political forces that oppose the results of the recent elections.
According to the source, Khamenei’s message insisted on “prohibiting division within the Shia house”.
He said: “Sadr told Ghaani to convey a message to Khamenei that he is pursuing the plans of the majority government with the participation of some parties, not all of the coordination framework.
He added: “During a meeting between Ghaani and the leaders of the Coordination Framework, he informed them of the need to preserve the unity of the framework, and not to leave with Sadr divided. Ghaani told them, “Either you all go with Sadr or you all join the opposition.”
Ghaani, who fears division within the Shiite house, advised Sadr to ally himself with the Coordinating Framework to create a Shiite parliamentary force, the source noted.
The current Shia political divide represents Iran’s greatest challenges in Iraq, and perhaps in the region. The Shia-Shia conflict may undermine the influence Iran has gained over the past 19 years, which is why Ghaani has made about four visits to Iraq since the start of 2022.
During these visits, he met with Shiite and Kurdish leaders, including Sadr and Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Information leaks indicated that Ghaani had told Barzani that “going with Sadr without the other Shiite parties would endanger Iran’s national security.” It was a warning and a threat.
Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor: “Iran’s interest in forming Iraqi governments includes preventing division between Shiite blocs and preventing conflicts between Shiite and Sunni and Kurdish forces that have ties to Iran, so Tehran doesn’t have to choose between its Iraqi allies and friends. Ghaani’s task is to preserve the Iraqi consensus that Iran considers best for its interests in Iraq.
He said: “Iran wants an Iraq strong enough to remain cohesive and resistant to chaos scenarios, but at the same time, it does not want an Iraq that is too strong and threatens its interests.
Kadhim noted, “Iraq is Iran’s economic and geopolitical lung and is part of the geography over which its allies extend to the Mediterranean Sea. He doesn’t want Iraq to be ruled by any party or alliance that changes that equation.
It cannot be said that Iran’s influence over Sadr is great, nor that it does not exist, which opens the way to several scenarios, the most important of which is that Sadr begins to think about the possibility of reconsider their choices. But that would probably not amount to a withdrawal of his positions towards Nouri al-Maliki and Qais Khazali, who represent the stumbling block of Sadr’s alliance with the Coordination Framework.
The idea of a political or armed conflict between Shiite forces worries not only Shiites, but also Sunni and Kurdish forces, as they believe that the collapse of the Shiite political situation would affect them. Thus, the Sunni and Kurdish leaders are proposing initiatives to reconcile the points of view of the Shiite parties.
Toby Dodge, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics focusing on Iraq, told Al-Monitor: “It seems that Iran is only now stepping up the pressure on Sadr given his refusal to move towards a consensual government. However, if Sadr continues to refuse to accept what Tehran wants, it does not appear that Iran, at least for now, is willing or able to force him to make any concessions.
Dodge noted, “I’m sure Ghaani doesn’t have the influence or strategy of his predecessor Qasem Soleimani. I guess he wants to persuade Sadr to accept an inclusive consensus government, but he can’t achieve that.
Ghaani’s role in Iraq today is small compared to that of Soleimani, who had broader connections with Shia leaders to unite their ranks, but also with Sunnis and Kurds.
Ghaani does not have the power to impose visions and demands on the Iraqi parties. On the contrary, he is trying, as much as possible, to preserve the gains made in recent years, especially in light of the possibility that some parties in the Coordination Framework will form a government with Sadr.
What Iran fears most at the moment is Sadr’s success in dismantling the coordination framework and forming a government that includes Sunnis and Kurds, while excluding Iran’s most important allies. in Iraq – Maliki and Khazali. Thus, Ghaani’s shuttles between Baghdad, Erbil and Najaf must stop Sadr’s project aimed at forming a government with a “national majority”.