Tehran alarmed by Iraqi nationalism
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is having a bad month. First, the United States abrogated the nuclear deal. Then, Israel intensified its air raids against Iranian military targets in Syria, without Iran being willing or capable of answering in kind. Now, Iraq’s shock election is presenting Tehran with a third and possibly more important challenge. The rise of Iraqi nationalism could jeopardise Iran’s gains in that country since the US-led invasion of 2003 and overthrow of the Ba’ath regime.
Results from Iraq’s May 12 election show a surprise victory for the unlikely alliance between maverick Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr, communists and other secular groups. Tehran-backed militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc is in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s bloc trails in third place.
Sadr, who spent most of his youth in Iran, was previously perceived as a puppet of Tehran. He was instrumental in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ irregular warfare against the US military in Iraq. In recent years, he has chosen a path independent of Tehran, publicly criticising the Islamic Republic and even visiting Saudi Arabia.
Tehran has expressed concern over developments in Iraq for some time. Alarmed that Sadr seemed to be gravitating towards Saudi Arabia, senior figures in Tehran issued warnings. In February, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned against a Sadrist seizure of power in Iraq. “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Velayati said. On April 26, a Mehr News Agency analyst went so far as to set about “disclosing” a “Saudi conspiracy.” Following the defeat of ISIS, said the analyst, “when they found out that they cannot find foothold in Iraq by military means, they resorted to political means to infiltrate Iraq.”
Conspiracy theories don’t warrant serious commentary, but Iraqi Communist Party Secretary-General Raed Fahmy responded to Velayati’s warning with the following statement to Reuters: “[W]e must have balanced relations with all [countries] based on non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.”
Sadr himself has made clear he is unwilling to compromise with Iran by forming a coalition with Tehran-backed Amiri or former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Sadr has indicated he prefers to cooperate with the current prime minister, the Kurds and Sunnis.
At the time of writing, Tehran had yet to officially respond to the Iraqi election results. However, a few news sources have reflected the prevailing opinion of the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic. On May 15, the conservative Tasnim News Agency warned of the possibility of a coalition government between Sadr, Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim and former Vice-President Iyad Allawi. The reformist Sharq, reflecting Mehr News’ pre-election conspiracy theories, warned of greater Saudi influence in Baghdad.
Tehran is not likely to give up its ambitions in Iraq. After all its investments in Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will most likely try to mobilise its proxies, as well as opportunistic elements to secure its interests. Throwing Iraq into a prolonged period of government crisis may be just one of IRGC Commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s options. Soleimani may also test the extent of Sadr’s new nationalism: Hassan Danaeifar, Iran’s former ambassador to Baghdad and an officer of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, has dismissed speculation about Sadr’s gravitation towards Riyadh. He told Entekhab News: “A couple of visits can’t change the foundations of a current of an individual. This is all speculation in which anyone is free to engage, but it does not mean it reflects the mind of Muqtada Sadr or his party comrades.”
Danaeifar also dismissed anti-Iranian slogans chanted by the Sadrists, saying: “Yesterday, this was debated on the internet, but it was from a while back. It’s all shenanigans!”
Shenanigans or not, the rise of Iraqi nationalism may be challenging for the Islamic Republic.