For the last three years, Tehran’s relationship with the firebrand junior cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has undergone a significant change. During the early rise of the Sadrist phenomenon, the young cleric was viewed by Iranian officials, especially by the major clerics in the government, as the son of a grand ayatollah who had gone wild, a novice student from a prestigious clerical family who makes his decisions without consulting his religious elders and acts without considering the general good of the Shiite community. In April 2004, when al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, confronted U.S. troops after weeks of urban fighting, a number of ayatollahs in Iran, including the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were upset by the fighting, which they believed defiled the city of Najaf, one of the Shiites’ holiest places, and also put at risk the unity of the Shiite community under the U.S. occupation. It was finally under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and collaboration of a number of Iranian delegates in Najaf that al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army gave up its armed resistance and began to participate in the democratic political process.
Iran-Sadr relations, however, have undergone a major transformation since the January 2005 and December 2005 elections, when the followers of al-Sadr were able to win a considerable number of parliamentary seats in the Iraqi National Assembly. Realizing the effectiveness of al-Sadr’s well-organized militia and emerging popular base, Tehran then began to establish closer ties with al-Sadr and started to treat him as a major political figure. Such links have included supplying his Mahdi Army with lightweight weaponry and training the militia’s commanders in a similar fashion that the Qods Force trained Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Masoud against the Russians, Muslim Bosnians against the Serbs and Hezbollah against the Israelis in the 1980s and 1990s.
While the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) remains Tehran’s main ally in Iraq today, Tehran considers al-Sadr an important partner against foreign threats, especially in case of a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities and, concurrently, a surge of Wahhabi extremism in the region, which would threaten the security of the Shiite community, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For al-Sadr, likewise, Tehran can provide his Mahdi Army with a new heroic prestige much like the prestige that has enabled Hezbollah of Lebanon to become the source of admiration for many Sunni Arabs. Although careful in the way he continues to associate with Iran, since he fears being viewed by some Iraqis (especially Sunni Arabs) as another Iranian puppet like SCIRI, al-Sadr considers Tehran’s military support as a sure way of bolstering his base in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and also defending against any potential military threats to his militia by U.S. troops or rival Shiite and Sunni militias.
The New Sadr-Tehran Nexus
Just three years after the assassination of his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, in 1999, Moqtada was relatively unknown in Qum and Tehran, except to the followers of Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri who succeeded his father. Yet, when al-Sadr first traveled to Iran to take part in a commemoration marking the 14th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 2003, he was surprised to find out that he would be given an audience with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei . Unlike the 1990s, when the Iranian government ignored his father for his alleged links with Saddam Hussein’s regime, the young al-Sadr began to receive official invitations to visit Tehran, and even occasionally traveled to the bordering Iranian town of Mehran to find safety when under threat .
After the January 2005 elections, however, al-Sadr’s visits to Iran began to become more official and serious in appearance. On January 24, 2006, when al-Sadr met with the hardliner Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who officially invited him to Tehran for talks, he pledged to defend Iran if it were attacked by the United States over its nuclear program . Such rhetoric about political partnership appears to be backed by military support. It is known that in his last visit to Tehran, al-Sadr met with members of the Qods brigade and discussed military cooperation between his militia and the Revolutionary Guards. It is also rumored in Iran that soldiers of the Mahdi Army are now being trained and armed by the Revolutionary Guards in the outskirts of Masjid Suleiman in the province of Khuzistan, and in the city of Mehran in the province of Ilam, where to this day many Iraqi refugees reside and travel between the two countries. Iran’s influence over the Mahdi Army appears to be so great that al-Sadr even fears that his militia is being infiltrated by Iranian intelligence officers as a way for Tehran to control his military organization.
The major catalysts in the development of this military alliance can be described as, first, a reaction to the increasing breakdown of Iran-U.S. relations over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program and, second, the spread of sectarian tensions in Iraq, especially since the Samarra bombing in February 2006. The main objective is to create a new Shiite bloc against perceived U.S. aggression in the region and the rising tide of sectarianism, which is believed to be supported by Washington.
The Hezbollah Factor
For awhile, al-Sadr has looked up to Hezbollah of Lebanon as a model of Shiite military success. He respects the leadership of the organization and admires the general secretary of the party. This is evident in al-Sadr’s many speeches when he first expressed solidarity with the general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, in his call for Muslim unity in 2004 . Many of his representatives also consider Hezbollah as the model to emulate, especially the organization’s social network in Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah was originally the source of inspiration in the formation of the Mahdi Army in June 2003. As one of his representatives describes, “we want to become Iraq’s Hezbollah. We want to show to the Iraqis that we can defend our country from the occupying forces [istikbar] and provide security from internal enemies. We also want to become the main center of social services in the country” .
As Hezbollah’s prestige spreads throughout the Islamic Middle East after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, al-Sadr is now focusing more on military strength as a means to gain power in Iraq. Military support remains the key concern in the post-2005 Iran-Sadr alliance, and southern Iraq and southwestern Iran have become the places where such assistance is being provided on a daily basis. Also, the Mahdi Army is likely receiving military support from Hezbollah, in which cooperation between the two militias appears to have increased since 2005 . With the SCIRI and Da’wa parties fully embedded in Iraq’s political structure, Iran can now also rely on an alternative Shiite political party that has the courage to challenge the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The Implications of the Alliance
Although it is customary to regard Tehran’s ties to the Shiite Iraqis in terms of religious identity, the growing alliance between al-Sadr and Iran has largely emerged as a form of political alliance with militaristic dimensions. The attempt for closer ties is made by both parties to strengthen and expand their influence beyond their territorial locality and in becoming a transnational military force in the region. Yet there is also the problem of sectarianism. Both Tehran and al-Sadr realize that against the high tide of Sunni extremism, Shiite unity is essential in assuring the success of a Shiite dominated Iraq.
In the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, when the Sadrists declared that they would protect the Shiite community (and shrines) against any Sunni attacks, the Mahdi Army has become one of the most popular militia groups in Shiite Iraq. With the ongoing sectarian conflict, al-Sadr provides the majority of Shiites, who still remain poor and marginalized, hope for a better future. Today, al-Sadr depends on Tehran to provide him with the military might to fulfill his promise of security for an Iraq without Sunni extremism and, eventually, free from U.S. occupation. With the assistance of Iran, he wants to become the Sheikh Nasrallah of Iraq.
Tehran, too, views al-Sadr’s rising popularity as a major asset. For many in Tehran, especially the Revolutionary Guards which still seeks vengeance against the United States for its support of the Baathists during the Iran-Iraq war, al-Sadr is the kind of Shiite leader who can advance Iranian interests against the U.S.-Sunni nexus in Iraq. In a sense, he is seen as a sharp thorn in the eye of the Americans and a powerful barrier against the spread of Wahhabi extremism.
Al-Sadr, however, can also contain the influence of many quietist clerics, like Ayatollah al-Sistani, who are seen by the clerical establishment in Tehran as potential threats to the Islamic Republic and its ideology of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent). Much of the “heterodoxy” of the Sadrist movement lies in its early 2003–2004 rejection of clerical monopoly, led by some young clerical students and followers of al-Sadr who accused al-Sistani of transforming the shrine city of Najaf into a “sleeping house of learning.” The heretical tendencies of the Sadrist movement also entailed rejecting the religious authority of a living, high-ranking cleric in favor of the rulings of a deceased marja (or religious scholar), a blasphemous idea according to the Shiite orthodox thinking that al-Sistani best advocates. With the growth of al-Sadr’s military might, partly as a result of Iranian collaboration, a major threat against the quietist Shiite establishment in Najaf may be developing, which for the moment has encouraged democratic participation and non-violence in Iraq.
Accordingly, this growing alliance can also provide a greater incentive for Iran to continue with its plans to expand its nuclear program since Tehran knows that any U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities could put at risk U.S. troops in Iraq and accordingly the stability of a country in which they aim to establish a viable democratic order. Shiite militias not only are armed, but also make up a major part of the Iraqi democratic order. If Tehran is attacked, the Mahdi Army can disrupt Iraq’s fragile political system by withdrawing from the government, and possibly begin attacks on U.S. forces in the major regions of the south.
This new alliance, however, still remains undeveloped. Deep differences bubble under the surface of Iranian and Iraqi Shiite politics, as nationalism plays a decisive role in the shaping of domestic politics in both countries. Al-Sadr still claims to be an Iraqi nationalist with the ability to lead Iraq to free itself from U.S. and Iranian influences. Iranian officials find al-Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism troubling. It still remains to be seen as to what extent al-Sadr will remain loyal to Iran. SCIRI, al-Sadr’s arch rival, receives greater financial and military support from Tehran, and this could certainly cause major problems between Iranian officials and al-Sadr. Due to internal Shiite rivalries, it is not clear what the outcome of the alliance would be.
The problem is not limited to competition between SCIRI and the Sadrists. The most dangerous consequence of Tehran’s close ties with al-Sadr is that he could face powerful challengers within his own militia who accuse him of getting too intimate with the Iranians. Sadrist splinter groups and offshoot Mahdi Army leaders have already paved the way to the formation of new radical militias. This is potentially dangerous as these splinter militias can radicalize the Shiite community with their messianic ideology of the new millennia through revolution and violence.
The United States should understand the dynamics of Tehran’s ties to al-Sadr, especially since the future of this alliance largely depends on how U.S. policy toward Iran will evolve in the months to come. To be sure, as the U.N.’s Security Council, led by the U.S. administration, contemplates tougher actions against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that Tehran’s ties with al-Sadr will grow in a militaristic dimension, and the Mahdi Army could emerge as the Lebanese Hezbollah of Iraq. The new Iraq emerging under the ashes of the Baathist regime could become a new site for proxy wars between Iran and the United States.
1. Author’s interview with a representative of al-Sadr in Qum, on January 2, 2007, who wishes to remain anonymous.
2. Rasul-e Jafarian, “Tamel Mazhabi Iran va Araq dar do Gharn-e Akhir,” https://www.baztab.com, December 26, 2006.
3. Sayed Ziyauldin Ehtesham, “Safareh Moqtada Sadr be Iran va yek payam be America,” https://www.baztab.com, January 24, 2006.
4. Al-Manar TV, April 2, 2004.
5. Author’s interview with a representative of al-Sadr in Qum, on January 2, 2007, who wishes to remain anonymous.
6. Author’s informal interview with a young member of the Mahdi Army on August 7, 2005 in Najaf, who claimed to have received military support from Hezbollah during August 2004 fighting.