Moqtada al-Sadr and Iran have always had a difficult relationship. The two have used each other when it suited them, and then parted ways over and over again. Currently the two are at odds with each other over Sadr’s protests and support of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi.
In 2016 Sadr was able to co-opt the anti-government protests in Iraq. Those demonstrations started the year before demanding reforms in Baghdad. In August 2015 Sadr first called on his followers to join in, and eventually subsumed the secular protest leaders and imposed his agenda upon them by the start of this year. That culminated in taking over the Green Zone from April 30-May 1. During those two days Sadrists chanted anti-Iranian and anti-General Qasim Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, slogans. Sadr meant to use the demonstrations to push Prime Minister Abadi to follow through with his remaking of the cabinet with non-partisan technocrats. Sadr also meant to intimidate the other ruling parties by threatening to storm the Green Zone if they didn’t back the reforms. In doing so, Sadr was attempting to become the new kingmaker in Iraqi politics.
Sadr’s actions have evoked the ire of Iran and its allies, which have become increasingly critical of him. The earliest hint of that dissatisfaction came in April 2016 when Sadr went to Lebanon and met with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. A few days later Al Hayat reported that Tehran sent Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani to talk with Sadr about his protests. A source claimed Sadr walked out of the meeting. Finally, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati said the protest was illegal and threatened the security and rule of law in Iraq.
That pressure seemed to make Sadr back off a bit. The day after his followers took over the Green Zone, he departed to Iran where he was going to be berated for that latest action. The head of his bloc in parliament also apologized for the anti-Iranian chants. Finally, his offices told his followers to only carry out local demonstrations on May 6. Despite that, people came out in cities across southern Iraq and Baghdad.
Iran has deep mistrust of Sadr, and does not appreciate him trying to bully Abadi and push through his reforms. Tehran’s main allies in Baghdad, Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa faction and the Badr Organization have been opposed to PM Abadi attempting to change the cabinet, and have been trying to undermine his rule for months now. They joined in the sit in protests by lawmakers that attempted to vote out not only Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri, but Abadi as well. They both have been long time opponents of Sadr too. Iran also does not like Sadr appropriating the protest movement, because it gives him more influence, and hence have been attacking him over it. After 2003 Iran and Sadr came together because both opposed the United States occupation of Iraq. Sadr proved both erratic and unpredictable and the two quickly fell out. The two maintained ties, but it was always a difficult relationship. Today they actively dislike each other as shown by Sadr’s followers chanting anti-Iran and anti-General Suleimani slogans. At the same time, Tehran still has enough sway to order Sadr to appear in Iran for those same protests. Who will ultimately win in this struggle is yet to be seen.
Recent reports on Sadr and Iran have been schizophrenic. First, Sadr’s offices released a series of pictures claiming to be Moqtada in Iran. The problem was at least one of those pictures dated back to 2011 bringing up the date of the other photos. Then Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied that Sadr was in the country for any talks. Finally, MP Hakim Zamili a leader in the Sadrist movement in parliament denied that the movement was behind the Green Zone take over, claiming that it was a spontaneous move, and then a spokesman warned that there would be a new round of demonstrations if parliament didn’t meet again to vote on the rest of Abadi’s cabinet. Those defiant statements counter the retreat the organization made over the anti-Iranian chants during the Green Zone takeover. The use of old pictures and the contradictory statements about Sadr’s presence in Iran also obfuscates his status. Was he being berated by Iran or was Tehran just trying to cover up its actions?
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