Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician Muqtada Al-Sadr in Tehran on Sept. 21, 2019. (Photo via Iran’s supreme leader’s website)
Four months after Iraq’s parliamentary elections, Shiite cleric and politician Muqtada Al-Sadr is getting closer to his goal of forming a “national majority” government and thereby marginalizing rival Shiite factions. Iran is concerned about these developments, which could significantly undermine the role and influence of its Iraqi allies. Tehran has tried hard—but apparently failed—to obstruct the formation of Sadr’s envisioned majority government. Iranian efforts to persuade the Iraqi leader to come to terms with the pro-Iran groups operating under the banner of the Shiite Coordination Framework have also been fruitless.
The commander of Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force traveled to Iraq on Feb. 8, the third time in just one month, to meet with Sadr and leaders of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, Brig. Gen. Esmail Qa’ani does not appear to have succeeded in changing Sadr’s attitude, who is apparently ready to work with all Coordination Framework figures—except his longtime nemesis, former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki (2006-14). Iran’s attempts to dissuade the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) from joining forces with Sadr and Iraq’s main Sunni blocs have not yielded results either.
As such, the post-election situation—and especially Sadr’s upper hand in forming the next government—may present Iran with several serious challenges. The outcome of these contestations could affect the Islamic Republic’s future role in Iraq. Importantly, it must be considered that the potential implications of these ongoing shifts will not remain limited to Iraq. Instead, Iran’s interests in Syria—Iraq’s neighbor to the west—will also likely be affected by the current developments.
Political weakening of Iran’s allies
To begin with, Sadr’s desire to curb pro-Iran armed groups could limit their maneuvering space not only in Iraq, but also in their so-far routine engagement in foreign conflicts. Both before and after the Oct. 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections, Sadr has stressed that arms should be only in the hands of the state—even as he himself commands Saraya Al-Salam. In the same vein, he has also called for the dissolution of various Shiite armed groups and their integration into the official state structures.
Those armed groups have also been operating in a regional context for years. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, a number of Iraqi factions—along with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah—have supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his war against armed opposition and terrorist groups. Affiliates of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have significantly contributed to consolidating Iranian control over the Iraqi-Syrian border, particularly in Deir Al-Zor Governorate in eastern Syria.
If the next Iraqi government opts for constraining Shiite armed groups, Iran will likely experience difficulties in maintaining control over the strategic border area. The significance of the latter should not be underestimated; the region is considered vital for the movement of arms, equipment, and fighters from Iraq to Syria and vice versa. Sadr has already stated that he opposes the foreign activities of Iraqi groups, arguing that they may risk pulling Iraq into broader regional conflicts.
Even if, in the end, a compromise is reached between Sadr and the Coordination Framework—under which some members of the Shiite umbrella body join the new government—their position will still be very fragile. If Maliki is left out—considering that his State of Law bloc performed best among the Coordination Framework members—the pro-Iran factions would be the weaker party in a government that includes Sadr and his new Kurdish and Sunni Arab partners. For this reason, any potential coalition between Sadr and the Coordination Framework will be highly fragile and prone to an eventual breakup. A fragmented Coordination Framework would in turn likely lose its current role and practical relevance.