Regional Arab states and their Western allies are attempting to divide the Iraqi Shiites and drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad to alter the balance of power in Iraq, warns an article in Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). “Today, Iraq is going through a sensitive time. Given that this country is heading toward next year’s parliamentary elections, subversive attempts are being made to divide the Shiite community, which constitutes a majority in the ruling government,” wrote Hassan Rostami, an Iranian analyst of Middle Eastern Affairs. He called on all Iraqi leaders to remain vigilant to foreign plots.
The article claimed that some regional governments saw the post-Saddam democratic system in Iraq as a threat to their regional ambitions and exported terrorism and weapons to destabilize the country. It further accused regional and Western countries of “waging a media war” against Iraq and blaming the Iraqi Shiite majority of marginalizing the Sunnis. The author credited Iraqi Shiite religious leaders for foiling foreign plots and maintaining sectarian harmony in the country.
The article warned that the common enemies of Iran and Iraq are pursuing a two-fold strategy: to create divisions within the Iraqi political parties and to harm relations between Baghdad and Tehran. “Some countries in and outside the region and their media outlets are engaged in mysterious actions to damage relations between this country and Iran. By raising trivial issues, they are attempting to make a case that relations between [Iraqi] Shiite politicians and Iran are souring and Iran’s influence in Iraq is declining,” it noted. But the author stressed that long-standing and deep-rooted cultural and religious ties between the two countries mean that Tehran and Baghdad will remain strategic partners.
The article also pointed out that Baghdad is indebted to Tehran for helping Iraqis to fight the Islamic State. “At a time when regional governments were exporting terrorism and weapons to Iraq to create chaos and instability there, Iran through the presence of its advisory forces stood alongside the army and popular forces of this country in the fight against the presence of Daesh [Islamic State]. As this country’s officials say, without Iran’s advisory presence in Iraq, Daesh would have captured Baghdad.”
The article downplayed the significance of the latest visits by top Iraqi Shiite leaders to Saudi Arabia, but cautioned that all Iraqi leaders should stay united and not allow Iraq’s “enemies” to exploit differences between Iraqi Shiites.
Comment: The latest Saudi outreach to the Iraqi government and Shiite leaders has worried Tehran. Last month, Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite Iraqi religious and political leader, visited Saudi Arabia and met with the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. On his return, Sadr, who lived in Iran when his militias were fighting against the U.S.-led coalition in post-Saddam Iraq, called for the disbandment of Tehran-supported Popular Mobilization Force (P.M.F.), and later traveled to the United Arab Emirates as well. Sadr’s trips to the Sunni Arab countries sent shockwaves in Tehran. Iranian analysts and media outlets warned that Riyadh was attempting to court Iraqi Shiite leaders to influence Iraqi politics in the run-up to the parliamentary elections at the expense of Iran’s interests.
Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia also came at a time when Riyadh and Baghdad had recently taken steps to cultivate closer relations. Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after more than two decades. Earlier this year, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a rare visit to the Iraqi capital; and in June, the two countries announced the formation of a coordination council to enhance their strategic ties. Likewise, Iraqi prime minister and minister of interior have also paid visits to the Kingdom this year.
Muqtada al-Sadr is a member of an influential Shiite family and a son of prominent Shiite cleric, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. While Sadr has lost some of his political clout recently, he still has a large support base among the Iraqi Shiites as the leader of the al-Sadr movement. It is therefore not surprising that his visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with the Saudi crown prince and other senior officials have caused a stir in Tehran. In April, Sadr publicly called on Iran’s ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the war-ravaged country. Unlike some other Iraqi Shiite militant leaders close to Tehran, Sadr has also refrained from hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states in the region. In May, Sadr called on Iran and Saudi Arabia to engage in “serious dialogue” to bridge their differences and stabilize the region.
With the Islamic State on the brink of defeat in Iraq and Iraqi parliamentary elections slated for next year, Tehran may be worried that Muqtada al-Sadr may form an alliance with Iraqi nationalists and Sunni blocs to challenge Iran-friendly Shiite government in Baghdad.