That Long Reach of Hand

Saudi’s wooing of Sadr is a serious strategic challenge to Tehran

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he speaks during a ceremony marking National Day of Space Technology in Tehran, Iran February 1, 2017. via REUTERS
Mohammad Reza Moradi West Asia Expert Tehran

Moqtada Sadr, the cleric who leads Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, made a recent trip to Saudi Arabia upon an official invitation from officials in Riyadh. The trip came at a time that Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz was on vacation in Morocco and all his powers had been delegated to his son, Mohammad bin Salman. During his visit, the leader of Iraq’s Sadrist Movement met with Saudi Arabia’ crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, for the first time in the city of Jeddah and discussed bilateral relations and other issues of mutual interest with him. The question is what reason prompted Moqtada Sadr to pay this visit to Saudi Arabia after 11 years and under the present circumstances? A primary answer that can be given to this question is that Saudi Arabia is trying to boost its influence in the post-Daesh Iraq through those political currents that have increased their distance from Iran and the Sadrist movement, in the meantime, has been considered as the best option in this regard.

The vicTory gained in Mosul over isis ushered The counTry inTo The posT-daesh era

The recent victory gained by the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Forces in the northern city of Mosul over the Daesh terrorist group practically ushered the country into the post-Daesh era. This era will naturally have its own specific characteristics and various political actors must choose legitimate ways in order to play a role in Iraq’s affairs. Under war conditions, pressure tools can be used in crisis-ridden countries to achieve goals, but under circumstances when political solutions are given priority, political and legitimate tools must be used by all groups to achieve their goals. Along the same line, Saudi Arabia, which had lent its serious support to Sunni groups at a time that Iraq was fighting against terrorism, is currently trying to achieve its goals through those Shia groups that sway high influence in the Arab country. In doing this, Saudi Arabia has chosen the Sadrist Movement as the best option for increasing its influence in Iraq, because this group has already increased its distance with other Shia groups. During past years, there were occasional differences of viewpoints between Iranian officials and Moqtada Sadr over certain issues, but those differences were not profound enough to draw a wedge between the two sides. However, the increasing political importance and position of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against Daesh has practically marginalized the Sadrist Movement. This issue has prompted this movement to try to find a new ally through its leader’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Even Sadr’s subsequent visit to the United Arab Emirates can be viewed along the same line, because he has been trying to obtain necessary tools in bargaining with other political groups in Iraq. On the other hand, the Sadrist Movement is trying to create some sort of balance in Iraq and enter Saudi Arabia into Iraq’s equations and political environment as a counterweight to Iran’s influence in that country.
Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, known by their Arab name as Hashd al-Sha’abi, has managed to come up as the most important military force in Iraq during the country’s war on Daesh. However, the relations that exist between this group and Iraq has prompted Saudi Arabia to seek to undermine Hashd al- Sha’abi disregarding the fact that Iran’s support for various Iraqi groups in their fight against Daesh came upon the request of the Iraqi government. Saudi Arabia, however, sees itself in an unending competition with Iran and, for this reason, is trying to block any way through which Iran would be able to boost its influence in the region. Therefore, the Sadrist Movement, which has called for the dissolution of Hashd al- Sha’abi time and again, came into the focus of Saudi Arabia’s attention. In fact, Moqtada Sadr is among few prominent Shia figures in Iraq, who is opposed to continuation of Hashd al- Sha’abi as an independent organization under direct supervision of the Iraqi prime minister after the country is totally liberated from terrorist groups.
The political arrangement of Iraq’s political groups is such that Shia groups are sure to win the highest votes during forthcoming parliament elections, which have been scheduled for 2018. This issue can be very important in determining the future conditions in Iraq, because it would be the first parliamentary elections to be held following decisive defeat of the Daesh and, in some way, the first elections to be held in an Iraq free from terrorism. In the meantime, the Sadrist Movement, which sees itself faced with other Shia groups that enjoy good relations with Iran, is trying to enter a second force into election campaigns. Therefore, through his recent trips to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this Iraq cleric is trying to use those two countries’ petrodollars to boost his competitive power in the face of other Shia groups. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is trying to take advantage of the votes that the Sadrist Movement will win in order to meet its own interests in Iraq.
In short, Saudi Arabia’s measures and goals in Iraq are all aimed at reducing Iran’s influence in that country. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has been trying to make a tactical turnaround and unlike what it did in past years, Riyadh is now trying to become more active in political activities and put trans-ethnic and trans-religious measures on its agenda. Of course, if this was some kind of true change in Saudi Arabia’s large-scale strategy, it could be very positive for regional security, but it seems that this issue is only a new tactic in the face of Iran.