Shiite Leaders Snub Iran by Rebranding as Nationalists

By August 2017Iraq

Prime Minister Abadi has long sought to change the nature of Iraqi politics. He desires his country to once again be a broadly neutral player in the region, led by a civic state and a reasonably cross-sectarian government. In our view, this vision may be attractive to many Iraqis, if not yet a majority of Shiite voters. Abadi’s ambitious concept seems to have been endorsed to some extent by two other Shiite heavyweights, the scions of the Hakim and Sadr religious dynasties. It is unclear whether this approach is a sign of desperation in the face of an increasingly effective electoral “ground game” by Badr and other Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) blocs, or whether Abadi, Hakim and Sadr have correctly sensed a shift in Shiite sensibilities that the polls do not yet reflect.

Ammar al-Hakim resigned from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) on 24 July, in effect re-branding the bulk of the party as the National Wisdom Movement. Hakim brought the rump elements of ISCI with him to the new party, including his name and family fortune, the Al-Furat media company, as well as most of ISCI’s MPs and provincial council figures. All that Hakim left behind was the ISCI’s name, logo and much of the old guard who spent their formative years in Iran as anti-Saddam resistance fighters.

In our view, Hakim is merely getting ahead of the coming defection of many such Iran-leaning ISCI old guard elements to Badr, which was formerly an adjunct to the ISCI. For several years Badr has been peeling away ISCI politicians toward its up-and-coming party network, including local power-players such as Ahmed al-Sulayti, the clerical head of Basra’s finance committee and Zubayr district’s most influential politician. Hakim has calculated that only a re-branding aimed at young, more secular voters can salvage his political future. 

Moqtada al-Sadr is in better shape – still able to count upon the loyalty of the vast majority of his support base – but he is also taking radical steps to offer Shiite voters an alternative to traditional sectarian voting options. His movement’s genuine cross-sectarian Iraqi nationalism has deep roots that even the anti-Sunni excesses of some Sadrists in 2006-2007 cannot erase. 

Moqtada remains as anti-American and anti-Israeli as ever, but his movement continues to win Sunnis’ trust at the ground level and oppose Iran’s efforts to dominate Iraqi politics. Notably, Moqtada’s movement stood with Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. Indeed, Shiite veterans who fought Iran during those eight terrible years, as well as their sons, comprise the backbone of Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Moqtada first risked his life standing up to Tehran when he resisted all Iranian entreaties and threats by backing the vote of no confidence effort against then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2012. This year, Moqtada called on Iran’s ally and Shiite Allawite Bashar al-Assad to step down as president of Sunni-majority Syria. Additionally, Moqtada has also been the only Shiite leader to openly call for the PMF’s demobilization.

Most recently, Moqtada accepted an invite to visit Saudi Arabia from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), one of the most anti-Iranian leaders in the world. Moqtada arrived in Jeddah on 30 July, meeting with both MbS and Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, previously the Saudi ambassador in Baghdad who was forced to depart for criticizing Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias. Moqtada’s move followed Prime Minister Abadi’s 19 June visit to Saudi Arabia and also a remarkable 17 July visit to the kingdom by Iraqi Minister of Interior Qassem al-Araji, a veteran Badr commander with direct ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. 

Moqtada’s visit – his first in 11 years – was therefore not an ice-breaker, but rather an additional step in the Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement, which yielded a commitment from Riyadh to develop a Saudi consulate in Najaf. Coming at a time when Saudi Arabia is in open war with its Shiite population in Qatif district, Moqtada’s visit was an act of high-stakes realpolitik aimed directly at Iran. In our view, Ammar al-Hakim is likely to be the next Iraqi leader to visit Saudi Araba. 

Abadi, Sadr and Hakim have now laid down markers on non-sectarianism, a civic state and Iraqi neutrality in the region’s sectarian conflicts. They are betting that Shiite Iraqis are tired of sectarianism and Islamist parties, and will flock to nationalist blocs. These leaders are also expecting anti-Maliki and anti-Iran blocs to band together to form a potential government. In our opinion, these are risky and uncertain assumptions. First, there is little indication yet that Shiite voters will respond to a new political idea, although admittedly the process of selling this idea has not yet begun. Second, there may be a risk that Abadi, Moqtada and Hakim will compete for the same segment of the Shiite electorate that is not wedded to Islamist parties and PMF blocs, and thus their eventual tally of combined seats will not grow. 

Overall, we view Sadr and Hakim’s mirroring of Abadi’s political strategy as broadly encouraging and still rate the latter’s chances as marginally higher than other potential premiers. Abadi stands the best chance if the Sadrists, Kurds and Hakim are not just a “never Maliki” coalition but also a “never Badr” coalition. If Iran is determined to oust Abadi for supporting the US military presence, then Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri will try to overcome any of Tehran’s potential aversion to his movement. We advise watching for signs that Badr is mainstreaming and tacking towards a nationalistic line, separating from the lowest common denominator sectarian politics of Maliki and other PMF blocs. Badr and the Kurds (to a lesser extent) are emerging as the likely kingmakers in forming the next government.