Shortly after Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared Sept. 10 in the presence of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Khamenei’s official website published several photos of the scene, showing Sadr submitting to Khamenei by putting his hand on his chest and looking up at him.
Sadr was seated with Soleimani to his left, both on a cushion on the floor, and Khamenei to his right, on a chair; Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, sat next to Soleimani. This setting was intended to send a message to Iran’s opponents in the region that Sadr is an essential element of the resistance axis, of which Khamenei is leader and Soleimani military commander.
Kayhan, a hard-line Iranian newspaper close to Khamenei, reported on the bigger picture of what had transpired at the Tehran assembly commemorating the third Shiite Imam Hussein Ibn Ali. In a piece titled, “Resistance axis is on the rise while the enemy is falling,” it introduced Sadr as Iran’s third pillar in the region side by side with Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Yemen’s Ansar Allah leader Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi.
The article also quoted several tweets from Iranian social media activists: “Trump, Netanyahu and King Salman know the meaning of this picture better than anyone else”; “Sadr entered Imam Khomenei Hussainia [congegration hall], Bolton left the White House”; and “Sadr’s meeting with Khamenei is another strike at the Western-Hebrew-Arab ominous triangle [United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia].”
Khamenei’s Sept. 10 assembly, part of a 10-day commemoration event on the occasion of the martyrdom in battle of the Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is not only a religious gathering, but also a political show conveying messages to local and international audiences. The day before the assembly, a religious singer (Maddah) sang a poem, in the presence of Khamenei, against the Saudis, slamming them for attacking Yemen and calling the Houthis the soldiers of God who could “destroy Satan’s devil horns,” in reference to the Saudi royal family.
In addition to sending a message to its regional opponents with the Sept. 10 meeting, Iran has been reorganizing its forces in Iraq. Iran’s traditional forces in Iraq, which include a group of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) factions, gathered under the umbrella of the Fatah parliamentary bloc and Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, do not seem powerful enough in Iraq’s political scene.
Following the series of attacks against PMU bases, its factions have been divided into two: One group is getting closer to Iran and the other is distancing itself from Iran. Moreover, many of the PMU factions have been involved in corruption, alcohol and drug smuggling, gambling and other illegal activities.
The Dawa party also has been divided into a pro-Iranian group led by Maliki and a US-friendly group led by Haider al-Abadi.
Under these circumstances, no one is more trustworthy than Sadr who leads the largest parliamentary bloc, the Sairoon Alliance, and Saraya al-Salam, a constant and powerful military faction.
An Iranian source close to Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s senior adviser on international affairs, told Al-Monitor that although Sadr would never fully submit to Iran, Khamenei’s administration looks at him as a strong trustworthy ally with genuine anti-US sentiments that can assure Iraq will remain a strategic ally of Iran.
“A strong ally with some differences is a better and long-lasting ally than a weak and divided one,” said the source, referring to Iran’s traditional allies among the Dawa party and PMU factions.
It seems that Sadr also has the same view about working with Iran. In a Sept. 13 tweet, he addressed Iraq’s politicians, writing, “Your corruption will not last long,” implying that a big change is coming to the political scene in Iraq.
By attending the Sept. 10 assembly in Tehran, Sadr has shown his support for the Iranians in this difficult time, emphasizing that Iran is a great player in the region with powerful flexibility and pragmatism. At the same time, Sadr is getting support from the Iranians for his future moves in Iraqi politics. Following Sadr’s meeting with Khameini and Soleimani, none of the Iranian actors in Iraq, including the PMU factions, can accuse Sadr of an anti-Iranian agenda, as happened in the past few years.
Sadr will continue his independent and nationalistic discourse, expanding his influence in the Iraqi government, but without objections from Iran-backed groups in Iraq. In the end, Iran is unconcerned about Iraq becoming a US or Saudi ally under Sadr’s influence.
Despite all these indicators showing bilateral rapprochement between Iran and Sadr, their honeymoon is not expected to last long due to the changeability of Sadr and complexity of Iraqi politics with so many actors with different tendencies.