Shiite Leader In The Sunni Kingdom
Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is known to the Western audience as the man who led part of the anti-occupation resistance against the US during the high tide of the country’s civil-liberation war. At the time, he was painted by the Mainstream Media as one of Iran’s most important anti-American proxies in the country, but this simplified and misleading description glossed over his cross-sectarian nationalist appeal within Iraq. After falling out of the limelight in recent years, al-Sadr is now back in the news because of his curious trip to Saudi Arabia, where he’s being feted as a high dignitary by the country’s royal elite.
Russian analyst Polina Tikhanova wrote about this for ValueWalk in her article “Saudi Arabia Finds Solution To Shia-Sunni Dilemma In Iraq”, where she understood his visit in the context of “Saudi Arabia…looking to inject some of its influence right in the heart of Iraq in order to contain Iran’s growing control over Iraq.” She also drew attention to the Kingdom’s need to bolster the international perception that it treats Shiites with equal respect, especially considering the latest crackdown against its own Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern part of the country. Her article provides a thought-provoking review of the situational background leading up to al-Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia, but it doesn’t answer the question about whether or not the Iraqi Shiite cleric is switching his geopolitical loyalty.
“Assad Must Go!”
The reason why this is a question in the first place is because it’s so unprecedented and surprising that Saudi Arabia would host such a man as al-Sadr, particularly in the context of the Ummah-wide sectarian competition between the Kingdom and Iran. The very fact that al-Sadr paid a visit to his country’s southern neighbor is reason enough to speculate about what might really be going on behind the scenes, but there’s another urge to do so as well when considering the significance of the militia leader’s controversial statement about Syria just a few months ago.
In the beginning of April and just a few days after the US launched a cruise missile barrage against the Syrian Arab Army, al-Sadr made headlines all across the Mideast when he said that he “[thought] it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late.” A lot of analysts were taken aback by this statement because they hadn’t expected any Shiite leader, let alone one who had led anti-occupation resistance against the US for years, to break ranks with their co-confessional political leaders and echo what the US itself had been demanding for years already.
This in and of itself gave rise to the talk that al-Sadr might be switching sides by abandoning Iran in favor of Saudi Arabia, and his trip to the latter just a few months after this symbolic statement only added fuel to the fire. It’s clear that Saudi Arabia tacitly approved of al-Sadr’s message and is overly happy to host him because of the uncomfortable reaction that Iran is bound to experience, but there might be more going on in the background than is publicly let on, and the cleric might not be pivoting towards the Kingdom in the manner that some may believe that he is. Instead of a full-on reorientation from Iran to Saudi Arabia, which would be very difficult to swiftly do for sectarian-political reasons, al-Sadr could be engaging in three mutually inclusive strategies for the betterment of his country.
Making Sense Of The Seemingly Insensible
The first possibility is that al-Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia might be a sign that the Kingdom is entering a slow-moving and sensitive détente with Iran, just like Ali Hashem from Al Monitor wrote in his article “Saudi engagement with Iraqi Shiites stirs talk of opening with Iran”. If true, then this could indicate that al-Sadr is behaving as a discrete intermediary between the two sides and helping to further the goal of regional peace. Of course, this is only a speculative conclusion at this point, but it shouldn’t be discounted because it would make sense for Iraq – the middle ground country Saudi Arabia and Iran – to play a role in brokering a strategic de-escalation between the Gulf’s two feuding Great Powers. Under such a scenario, al-Sadr might be the only one in Iraq who the Iranians trust enough to bestow this responsibility to, in spite of his recent anti-Assad statement.
Another explanation could be that al-Sadr is proactively engaging with the Saudis in order to preempt what he believes will be a forthcoming revival of the Sunni separatist movement in Iraq following the Kurds’ apparently imminent independence. Should the Kurds opt to secede from the country, whether peacefully through the ballot or backed up by force, then it would leave the Sunni and Shiite populations lumped together in the rump state, which could lead to explosive consequences given their history of violence against one another. Therefore, with a prudent eye on the future, al-Sadr could have correctly calculated that the wisest thing for him to do in the interests of a united post-Kurdish Iraq would be to reach out to the Saudis in order to dissuade them from supporting a renewed round of Sunni separatism.
If he could win the trust of their decision makers by convincing them to see him as more of an Arab/Iraqi nationalist than a sectarian militiaman, then he might be able to make some productive progress on this front. Saudi Arabia might wager that it’s better to deal with a “moderate” Shiite leader who is now re-emphasizing his nationalist credentials, particularly when it comes to having the “bravery” to break ranks with Iran on Syria, than to pass up this chance only to see a “hardliner” ascend in the Shiite community who would be impossible to work with. In that case, it would be all but certain that the Saudis would support Sunni separatism and further the prospects of yet another bloody round of civil war in Iraq, despite having comparatively less resources to allocate to yet another sectarian war on their periphery and questionable competencies in potentially annexing a broad swath of territory to their Kingdom.
For these reasons, it’s better for Saudi security at this moment to see the post-Kurdish Sunni-Shiite rump state of Iraq remain unified for the time being, which necessitates maintaining positive contact with influential Shiite leaders such as the “moderate” al-Sadr, someone who’s apparently willing to work equally with Saudi Arabia and Iran due to his prevailing ideology of Arab/Iraqi Nationalism superseding his sectarian affiliation and presumed affinity for Iran. If al-Sadr can present himself in such a way and successfully play to the national security expectations of the Saudis, then he might be able to preserve Iraqi unity after the Kurdish secession, though this could come at the expense of the previously excellent ties that his country currently enjoys with Iran if Tehran eventually comes to see him as unreliable.
This brings the analysis to the final possible explanation for al-Sadr’s recent warming up to the Saudis, and it’s that he plans to put his Arab/Iraqi Nationalism into practice by exploiting Iraq’s geostrategic pivot position between two Great Powers in order to balance between them for the supreme benefit of his country. This would be extraordinarily difficult to do in any case and would require Tito-like skills to pull off, but if this is indeed what al-Sadr has in mind, then it would answer a lot of the lingering questions about his latest behavior. For example, his echoing of the “Assad must go” mantra and intriguing inroads with the Saudis could then be seen necessary moves in order to preempt Riyadh’s support for post-Kurdish Sunni secessionism, as well as internationally recognized moves of strategic independence vis-à-vis Iran.
Instead of relying on one potential benefactor for his state, he might be betting that it’s better to balance between two, especially given the divisive sectarian optics of relying on only one of them. Again, it can’t be emphasized enough just how challenging it would be for al-Sadr to do this, but it does seem at this point like he is working hard to strike a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and this provides the best explanation as to why he’s attempting to execute such a policy. The bottom line is that al-Sadr probably isn’t switching sides so much as he’s seeking to diversify away from his perceived erstwhile strategic dependency on Iran, which itself might have been a misleading presumption predicated solely on his Shiite affiliation, and that he now wants to embrace his Arab/Iraqi Nationalist side in order have his country balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.