Feeling the heat of the recent offensive against his forces around Iraq, Muqtada Al Sadr, who has long been suspected of receiving support from the Iranian government, decided to publicly condemn the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
His verbal attack was an unprecedented turn of events for the young Shiite, who for the last year has been traveling to Iran on several occasions to complete his theological studies in order to become an Ayatollah himself. Western security sources have long suspected that these trips have also been used in order to receive financial assistance from Iran, and to coordinate the Mahdi army’s military and political strategy with the leadership in Tehran.
There are important reasons behind his offensive against Khameini.
Primarily, Al Sadr is furious at the fact that members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), have joined the Iraqi army’s offensive against his forces in important areas such as Baghdad and Basra.
ISCI, which is led by Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has the support of middle and upper class Shiites in Iraq, while Al Sadr’s Mahdi army has the backing of poor Shiites. Al Sadr is not only upset because ISCI has decided to turn its guns against fellow Shiites, but also at the fact that ISCI has been the recipient of a larger amount of aid from Tehran than his organization. This may lead Al Sadr to believe that ISCI has embarked on this adventure, with Tehran’s blessing. This belief would explain why, during his controversial interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday night, Al Sadr condemned what he called “Iranian intervention in Iraq’s security and politics.”
Presumably, his hope is that by condemning and distancing himself Tehran, he could get more local grass root support inside Iraq; something which he could use later on in order to stage a political and military comeback.
While its too early to declare victory and celebrate, nevertheless, Al Sadr’s recent move can be considered as an achievement for the US, in its ongoing struggle with Tehran over influence in Iraq.
Until now, Tehran has been masterfully controlling both Al Sadr and ISCI allies as a tool to increase its influence. Whether or not Washington sanctioned Maliki’s recent operations against the Mahdi army; the rift created between Iraq’s two major Shiite organizations is making Iran’s Iraqi adventure more cumbersome at least in the immediate future.
This, despite the fact that ISCI is allied with Tehran (many of its supporters who defected to Iran during Saddam’s rule, had their own neighborhood, called Dolat Abad in south west of Tehran.)
Al Sadr is obviously not going to to go away quietly. It is likely that he will save himself and his forces for a counter-offensive. What this could mean for Tehran is losing important intelligence assets in southern Iraq, as Mahdi army operatives are likely to suspect and distance themselves from pro-Iran Shiites. Furthermore, unless Tehran undertakes meaningful initiatives to repair its relationship with Al Sadr, the young cleric may call for a boycott of Iranian products and companies in southern Iraq. This would be a blow for Iran, which earns billions of dollars from exports to its Western neighbor.
For now, Washington and Al Maliki’s government must use the recent military setbacks for Al Sadr as an opportunity to reach out to poor Iraqis who form the basis of Al Sadr’s support. Unless economic assistance is provided to improve their lives, and security, Tehran could step in.
It would not be the first time that Tehran has supported two opposing sides in a conflict, and it would not be the last either.
Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran. He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (MEEPAS)