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Moqtada al-Sadr Wants to Be Iraq’s Ayatollah Khomeini

Despite the Shiite cleric’s apparent efforts against Iranian influence in Iraq, his chief inspiration is Iran’s founder and most famous supreme leader.

By , an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
A crowd of men protesting hold flags and a large portrait of Sadr.
A crowd of men protesting hold flags and a large portrait of Sadr.
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr raise his portrait as they protest a rival bloc’s nomination for prime minister, along the Al Jumhuriya bridge that leads to Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone on July 30. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

In recent months, Iraqi populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has gone from the forefront of efforts to formulate a government in Iraq to leading the country toward what he calls a “revolution.” Sadr’s supporters are now protesting in and occupying Iraq’s parliamentary building and the International (Green) Zone of Baghdad, catapulting Iraq’s government formation process into chaos.

In recent months, Iraqi populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has gone from the forefront of efforts to formulate a government in Iraq to leading the country toward what he calls a “revolution.” Sadr’s supporters are now protesting in and occupying Iraq’s parliamentary building and the International (Green) Zone of Baghdad, catapulting Iraq’s government formation process into chaos.

After his success in Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections, Sadr appeared to shake up Iraqi politics by forming a government that excluded his Iranian-backed opponents from power. As the leader of the bloc with the largest number of seats, Sadr rejected the formula for consensus-based power-sharing governments that has been the norm since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

Instead, Sadr formed a tripartite “Save the Homeland” alliance with the largest Kurdish party, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as well as parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Sovereignty Alliance, a Sunni political bloc—thereby cementing a majority in Iraq’s parliament. The alliance was then tasked with forming Iraq’s government.

For many, the alliance signaled a fresh start and what some hoped would be dwindling Iranian influence in the country. International and regional endorsements came flooding in, with some commentators calling Sadr Iraq’s (and the United States’) “best hope”—a notable shift from commentary on Sadr post-2003 when Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia was leading a violent insurgency in Iraq, including against U.S. troops. Many Western analysts as well as regional leaders now believe Sadr could save Iraq from unruly Shiite militias or at least align Iraq with the anti-Iran camp of the United States and its regional allies.

But on June 12, Sadr upended the government formation process when he asked all of his 73 parliamentary members to resign to allegedly help break the political deadlock that has left Iraq without a government around nine months after parliamentary elections. His more pro-Iranian political opponents, the Coordination Framework alliance, were then tasked with forming a government, and on July 25, they announced Mohammed al-Sudani as their prime ministerial candidate. Subsequently, Sadr called for protests against Sudani’s candidacy. Hundreds of Sadr’s supporters took to the streets, storming Iraq’s parliament and Green Zone while chanting anti-Iran slogans and holding up images of Sadr.

Just days earlier, on July 18, the first of a series of leaked audio recordings of former Iraqi Prime Minister and Coordination Framework head Nouri al-Maliki insulting and criticizing fellow members of the Coordination Framework and Sadr were released by a U.S.-based Iraqi journalist. The audio allegedly reveals Maliki hinting at a coming intra-Shiite war. The leak has undoubtedly played a part in the recent developments, emboldening Sadr to make his recent moves. Working to Sadr’s benefit, the recordings have affected Maliki’s standing both within the Shiite front and vis-a-vis Tehran, which has traditionally pushed for a large, unified Shiite bloc in Iraq.

There is no doubt that Sadr has played the nationalist card in recent years. However, like many of Iraq’s political power brokers, his relationship with Iran is complex and multifaceted, and the West needs to understand this.

Despite Sadr’s apparent efforts to act as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq, his chief inspiration is perhaps Iran’s founder and most famous supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadr’s strategic mix of Iraqi nationalism, anti-Westernism, and Shiite Islamism is straight out of Khomeini’s playbook.

For decades, Sadr has made calculated political moves. He has maintained a careful balancing act between various interests in Iraq, including those of Iran and the Persian Gulf states. In the past, where Iraqi political actors have thrown off this balance, the country has faced increased instability. Someone as well versed in Iraqi politics as Sadr would be acutely aware that a majority government designed to exclude pro-Iranian parties and figures from the outset would not be feasible and could easily erupt into civil war.

Which raises the question: Is Sadr’s recent strategy wishful thinking or a deliberate effort at destabilization?

Over the years, Sadr has shifted from presenting himself as a Shiite sectarian militia leader to a pro-democracy reformist and Iraqi nationalist, carefully and pragmatically cultivating his political endorsements and rhetoric to seize Iraq’s political mood. Despite what one may think about his authenticity, Sadr has, unlike any other Iraqi leader of his time, framed his politics and rhetoric to capture popular sentiment on the Iraqi streets. Anti-Iran sentiments, anti-Turkish sentiments, Iraqi nationalism, and general dissatisfaction with corruption and status quo politics have all featured in his rhetoric.

Sadr’s politics are not necessarily inherently anti-Iran nor are they wholly driven by personal rivalries, such as the one with Maliki. Instead, it is Sadr’s pragmatism, political deftness, and cautious self-posturing that have allowed him to take advantage of and create moments of instability.

Based on his years of tactical shifts, it is unlikely that Sadr ever wanted to be part of a majority government, and he was likely counting on the alliance to fail. In doing so, Sadr would be able to say that he tried to work in the country’s best interests, but that ultimately, his efforts were unsuccessful thanks to what he calls the country’s corrupt elite.

Much like Khomeini did in Iran, Sadr and his father before him built their appeal in Iraq over the years based on their popularity with the country’s poor and disenfranchised Shiites: Iraq’s very own mostazafin (meaning the “oppressed” or “downtrodden” and used by Khomeini and others to describe Iranians whom the monarchy had neglected and on whose behalf the Iranian Revolution was supposedly waged). Sadr has cleverly shaped his politics around growing sentiments in Iraq and the wider Middle East, where an overwhelming majority of people are rejecting the ideology of politicized religious movements and instead favoring pragmatic governments that can create more jobs for young people, reform religious institutions, and enhance public services.

Sadr has shown flexibility in his political alliances and rhetoric to reflect these desires. He has attempted to support and hijack the rise in protests Iraq has witnessed since 2018 because he knows that the country’s future requires a deep understanding of its street politics. It was Iraq’s Tishreen (“October”) protests beginning in 2019 that eventually pushed Iraq’s former premier out and resulted in early elections. Tishreen saw Iraqis take to the streets demanding an end to sectarian governance, foreign interference, and state-sanctioned corruption as well as calling for better employment, public services, and living conditions.

Sadr is no stranger to the modern history of the Middle East and the power of street mobilization to overthrow regimes, including in Iran in 1979. But like Khomeini before him, despite Sadr’s efforts to seize the moment, he is also constrained by his image: his family history, his religious background, and a particular brand of Shiite Islamist politics.

Sadr comes from a highly revered line of Iraqi Shiite clerics. One of Moqtada’s great uncles was among the leaders of the 1920 Iraqi revolt against the British occupation. Moqtada’s father-in-law and cousin once removed, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), is widely considered to be one of the most significant Shiite scholars of the 20th century. His ideas helped develop models of clerical activism distinct from the more quietist approach dominant in the Najaf clerical establishment of the time.

Baqir al-Sadr was one of the founders of the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party in the 1960s and served as its guiding ideological leader. After the establishment of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic in neighboring Iran, which was arguably in part inspired by Baqir al-Sadr’s ideas, Hussein’s regime accused Baqir al-Sadr of trying to lead a similar revolution in Iraq. Fearing this, the regime executed Baqir al-Sadr in 1980. More than 40 years later, Moqtada al-Sadr seems to want to realize that revolution.

Like Sadr, Khomeini’s politics have long been analyzed and interpreted. The multiplicity of Iranian identities as well as ideas that Khomeini evoked included a populist assortment of Shiite Islamism, Marxism, and popular anti-colonial, anti-Western, and anti-Israel rhetoric at the time—all of which were instrumental to his pre-1979 appeal and later ability to hijack Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Sadr’s rhetoric has similarly evolved over the years. He encapsulated anti-U.S. sentiment following the 2003 invasion and has maintained staunch anti-imperialism and anti-Israel rhetoric throughout the past two decades, but he also adapted his ideology and focus to change with the times, morphing from explicit Shiite sectarianism in the years following the U.S. invasion to Iraqi nationalism in more recent years. His anti-Iran rhetoric has simultaneously grown alongside increasing anti-Iran sentiment within the country, and when Iraqis took to the streets to denounce Turkish missile strikes on a tourist resort on July 20, Sadr called on his supporters to take to the streets and fight against Turkey.

Sadrists and their affiliates have long held key positions in Iraq’s post-2003 governments, but by refusing to ever hold a direct role in government, Sadr has been able to maintain that he is not accountable for the government’s discrepancies and faults. Instead, he has tried to cultivate a “man of the people” image. Sadr uses his unpredictability to maintain his outsider position because appearing to remain outside of Iraq’s political system is part of his larger goal.

Events of the last week have catapulted Iraq’s government formation process into total chaos. After Sadr’s supporters stormed the parliament and Green Zone following his call for a revolution, tensions became high. Moqtada’s opponents threatened a “counterrevolution,” and many Iraqis feel they are on the brink of a civil war. Now, Sadr has called for a reelection while his supporters continue to gather in and around parliament, prolonging the country’s political instability further. But that is precisely Sadr’s eventual goal: to stir the nation and hijack popular sentiment to become the most powerful man in Iraq.

Sadr stands up rhetorically against Iran because that matches the popular mood, but in reality, Sadr is as close as anyone to it. Sadr wisely recognizes that Iran is still a—if not the most—powerful external actor in Iraq, and his relationship with it is not as strained as he’d like people to think. Iran still has sway over Sadr, and Sadr knows better than to cut off those ties completely.

Sadr continues to visit Iran frequently for family and religious reasons. In 2019, Sadr marked the Islamic holy day of Ashura by visiting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. A few months later, in November 2019, during the peak of the Tishreen protests, Sadr was seen in Qom, his former place of study and considered to be the religious capital of Iran. In February of this year, following a meeting with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, Sadr came out with a statement in regard to Iraq’s government formation and directly quoted Khomeini saying, “Neither East nor West—a national majority government.” Sadr is not anti-Iran; he just wants to be the primary figure Iranians (and everyone else) have to deal with.

Sadr has positioned himself rhetorically as anti-Iran and anti-foreign imperialism, but despite the many rumors accusing Sadr of collaborating against Iranian interests in Iraq, it is notable, for example, that Iranian-backed factions hit back against the idea of a majority government and possible anti-Iranian activity by targeting not Sadr but the KDP, the smallest party in Sadr’s coalition with just 31 seats, and the KDP-led semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil.

Sadr has his ear to the streets, which has allowed him to play to them with some degree of success. But that audience may be changing more rapidly than even Sadr can keep up with. Iraq’s Tishreen protesters called for a starkly different future for Iraq, one that was progressive and democratic. Despite Sadr’s electoral successes, Iraq’s last elections saw very low voter turnout, and Sadr’s successes seem to be more attributable to his ability to organize and mobilize than to his popularity.

But just as Khomeini’s revolution would likely not win support in Iran today, Sadr’s Iraq project will not cut it for today’s Iraqis. Iran’s high young population today shares different grievances than their parents’ generation. For many of these youth, finding jobs and opportunities, being connected to the world, and enjoying life is of a higher priority than Islamic revolutionary ambitions. Iraq’s youth-led Tishreen movement tells a similar tale: The protesters were ethnically and religiously diverse and progressive, focused on reforming and modernizing Iraq’s political system and preserving its democracy, not overthrowing it. Iraq does not need another strongman dictator; that would be a short-term solution to a sea of problems.

Sadr is playing a long game in Iraq, cautiously posturing himself as the reasonable alternative for Iraq’s leader, both in the country and to regional and international policymakers. Like Khomeini and other populists before him, he is willing to steer Iraq onto a very worrying course to achieve that goal. There is no doubt that Iraq’s politics were already messy and deeply uncertain at times. Yet Sadr’s willingness to worsen Iraq’s political turmoil, delay Iraq’s government formation, and escalate protests further—threatening an all-out war with rival Shiite groups—should surely serve as a warning that he is capable of catapulting the country into something even worse.

Shayan Talabany is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, focusing on the international relations and politics of the Middle East, specifically Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

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