Moqtada al-Sadr’s Difficult Relationship With Iran

An interview with Nicholas Krohley, author of ‘The Death of the Mehdi Army: Insurgency and Civil Society in Occupied Baghdad’ on Moqtada al-Sadr’s complex relationship with Iran.


For many years during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr was considered an Iranian proxy. Iran gave military assistance to Sadr’s Mehdi Army and during the Surge Moqtada left Iraq and went to Qom for religious training. The truth of the matter was that Tehran never really trusted Sadr to do its bidding, while he expressed strong nationalist ideas. In more recent times, Iran got many of its Iraqi allies to send fighters to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Sadr did not. Today Iran is mobilizing militias to confront the insurgency in Iraq and Sadr has brought out his new Peace Brigades to join the fight. That doesn’t mean that he is any more open to Iran’s plans for Iraq as he has attacked the other militias as ‘foreigners’ referring to their funding and direction from Tehran.

Immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 it appeared that Moqtada al-Sadr was moving towards Iran’s orbit. In June Sadr travelled to Iran to talk with officials there and Ayatollah Haeri. Upon his return, Sadr said that he believed in Iranian-style clerical rule except that the leader had to be an Iraqi. Then in July he started criticising Haeri for not staying in Iraq during the Saddam period. It seemed like Sadr was willing to receive support from Tehran, but he wanted it to be on his terms. Is that a fair characterisation of how Sadr saw Iraq’s neighbour?

Muqtada’s relationship with Iran was, and remains, necessarily complex. For context, it’s critical to emphasise the anti-Iranian rhetoric of his father, Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who created the Sadrist Movement during the 1990s. The elder Sadr was an ardent Iraqi nationalist who placed enormous emphasis on Arabism and tribalism as defining attributes for Iraqi Shi’a. His most important scholarly/clerical work was an attempt to reconcile Arab tribal customs with Sharia law. Central to his life’s work was the message that Iraq’s Arab Shi’a are the rightful leaders of the Hawza, and that Persian ‘interlopers’ like Sistani (who was his contemporary and bitter rival) have no business dominating Najaf. Likewise, the (largely underclass) Shi’a followers of the elder Sadr were generally hostile to Iran, due in significant measure to their having played a central role in the brutal eight year war between the two countries. A strong case can be made that the elder Sadr’s populist anti-Iranianism was a key reason that Saddam Hussein allowed the Sadrist movement to develop as it did, because it helped distance Iraq’s Shi’a from Iran’s influence and promoted nationalist/Arabist sentiments at a time of intense sectarian insecurity for the regime.

It’s an issue that deserves deeper discussion—but the short of it is that a partnership between Iran and Muqtada was by no means natural, nor was it easily reconciled with the ideological foundations of the popular movement that Muqtada inherited from his father. Similarly, Muqtada’s advocacy of clerical rule for Iraq—with Iraqi/Arab leadership—was entirely consistent with the teachings of his father, and a direct challenge to the Iranian government.

That said, the political landscape of the post-Saddam era created strong incentives for cooperation. Muqtada and the newly rekindled Sadrist movement were positioning themselves as the premier Shi’a opponents of the US and its Iraqi allies (some of whom were prominent former rivals of Muqtada’s father), and they needed funding, training and weapons. The tactical weakness of the Mehdi Army in the ’04 battles with the Americans in Najaf underscored the urgency of this. Iran, for its part, wanted to establish as much influence as possible in the new Iraq to advance its own interests, and was prepared to form working relationships with just about anyone (to include Sunni militants) to that end. So I would argue that the relationship was viewed with intense pragmatism on both sides – it wasn’t a partnership between friends or natural allies, but rather an alliance of mutual convenience, in which each side was attempting to use the other to achieve their own (at times contradictory) goals.

In 2004 there were the Sadrist uprisings against the Americans. There were Iranian advisers amongst his Mehdi Army in Najaf. At the same time, Iran pushed for a negotiated settlement because it was more interested in the 2005 elections, which would usher into power some of its long time allies such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). What was Iran’s view of Sadr as a militia leader and Iraqi politician?

I couldn’t say how Iranian leaders viewed Muqtada on personal terms. A good answer to that question would require intimate access to key decision-makers in Tehran – people like Qassim Suleimani. What does seem clear to me, however, is that the Iranian government treated Muqtada, the Sadrist movement, and the Mehdi Army as a set of tools to be used in pursuit of their national interests. No more, no less. And the Iranians always kept their options open, and were quick to reposition when it suited them. In the run-up to the 2005 elections, I would assume Iran’s overriding goal was to cement strong influence within a religiously-defined Shi’a government of Iraq that would be (at worst) friendly to Iran, if not actually subservient. This required forging a measure of unity among Iraq’s Shi’a factions (something that is by no means a naturally occurring state of affairs), so the Iranians helped orchestrate a quite awkward alliance between the Sadrists and establishment parties like ISCI and Da’wa. Meanwhile, the Iranians wanted to keep bleeding the Americans – hence the their diversification of Shi’a militant assets via men like Khazali at a time when the mainstream Mehdi Army stepped back from the front lines of ‘resistance’ (in keeping with Sadrist participation in the political process as an ostensible ally of the Shi’a establishment).

When the Surge started in 2007 Sadr went to Qom for religious training, which many saw as him seeking protection from the Americans. What’s your take on why he left Iraq, and do you know what his time was like in Iran?

There are a number of good reasons why Sadr might have left Iraq when he did. One would certainly be fear of the Americans, who were growing increasingly aggressive, and effective, in targeting the Mehdi Army (and who made at least one attempt to capture him personally, I believe). Or perhaps he was playing ‘the long game’, and he figured it was best to wait out the Surge from the safety of Iran – knowing that the Americans would eventually pack up and leave. Another possibility would be fear of targeting by his fellow Iraqi Shi’a, as there was serious, multi-directional intra-Shi’a violence across southern Iraq at that time that involved the Mehdi Army, the Special Groups, and Badr. It has also been argued that he was trying to distance himself from the abuses of the Mehdi Army and the mediocrity and corruption of prominent Sadrist politicians. By decamping to Iran, the argument goes, he would be able to return to Iraqi politics at some point in the future with not only enhanced clerical credentials, but also a measure of deniability for the failings/misdeeds of those who had been operating in his name. He could play the part of the returning reformer. Beyond that, you can pick from a colourful array of conspiracy theories.

As to his time in Iran, I don’t have any direct insight there. But it would be fascinating to hear how he was received/treated by Iranian officials in Qom, what Muqtada really thought of them, and what the dynamic was between him and other ‘scholars-in-residence’.

Qais Khazali was one of the close aides to Moqtada’s father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and after his death he took on a similar role with the son. In 2004 after the Sadr uprisings Khazali left the movement and started receiving backing from Iran. He would rejoin the trend and then leave again eventually forming Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), the League of the Righteous. Similarly, Iran began organising members of the Mehdi Army into what became known as Special Groups. What was Iran’s strategy behind taking on these breakaway factions and what was Sadr’s response?

Iran’s immediate purpose was to develop assets that could be used to kill American soldiers, Iraqi politicians, and members of the Iraqi Security Forces. Whenever possible, Iran wanted to exert direct operational control over these assets, as the ability to escalate/deescalate violence in Iraq was a key strategic weapon. Iran worked with the Mehdi Army to that end, but, as discussed above, this was a difficult relationship that I think was ultimately unsatisfying for Iran. The Mehdi Army, like the wider Sadrist movement, was a major player in Iraqi politics with objectives and interests that were not always compatible with the Iranians’. It was also large and unwieldy, with locally-oriented commanders exerting significant (and unpredictable) influence. So it made perfect sense for the Iranians to take advantage of divisions within the militia to develop separate relationships with splinter groups like AAH. These groups were far smaller and more manageable, more radical/militant, and more dependent on Iranian patronage due to their lack of popular/political support among Iraqi Shi’a.

You can think of it this way: the Mehdi Army, like the Sadrist movement, was a distinctly Iraqi phenomenon, which emerged independent of Iranian involvement and could pursue its ends, albeit much less effectively/efficiently, without Iran’s help. But AAH and the other Special Groups are inconceivable without Iran’s direct, ongoing involvement. The underlying dynamics are evident in the example you give at the outset: AAH has sent fighters to Syria and Lebanon, where they fight alongside Quds Force and Hizballah. They are creatures/creations of Iran, and their orientation is international – in line with the international objectives of the Iranian government. The Mehdi Army, on the other hand, is Iraqi at its core. The militia maintained a relationship of convenience with Iran, but it was by no means a tool thereof.

With that in mind, on a longer-term horizon, Iran’s cultivation of groups like AAH looks like an attempt to undercut Sadrist influence in Iraq and reshape Iraq’s domestic politics in Iran’s favour. As noted below, the long-term aspirations of Muqtada and the Sadrist movement pose a direct challenge to the Iranian government, and the Iranians have good reason to be wary of both. By enabling AAH’s growth, and its transformation into a political organisation that now competes with the Sadrists for the votes/loyalty of the latter’s traditional demographic base, the Iranians have altered the political landscape in Iraq. The ultimate success of this effort remains uncertain (AAH managed only one seat in the recent round of elections), but sudden changes of political fortune have been commonplace in the post-Saddam era.

Do you think Sadr continues with this love hate relationship with Tehran today?

As an outsider looking in, I’d suspect that the Iran-Sadr relationship leans more toward ‘hate’ from both sides. I see Muqtada as an Iraqi nationalist who wants to realise his father’s dream: a place of preeminence for Iraq’s long-suffering Shi’a underclass within a unified Iraq, and an Iraqi Arab (in this case, Muqtada himself) at the helm of the Hawza in Najaf, providing leadership to Shi’a across Iraq and beyond. If achieving that dream requires working with Iran, then so be it. Yet this makes Muqtada a serious threat to Iran in the medium- to long-term. A forceful, popular/populist, and outspoken Iraqi Arab Marja’ advocating clerical rule from Najaf would be an enormous challenge to the Iranian establishment. But in the interim, the dance of politics goes on, as each side tries to make use of the other to navigate the immediate, day-to-day challenges of the region.

Krohley Mehdi Army webNicholas Krohley is the founder of Subaltern Research Services and author of The Death of the Mehdi Army: Insurgency and Civil Society in Occupied Baghdad.




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