Where does Iran stand on neighbouring Iraq’s political turmoil?

Tehran, Iran – Iran has a stake in the stability of its western neighbour Iraq, which has just experienced two days of deadly violence after months of political turmoil.

Iraqi foreign minister Fuad Hussein landed in Tehran for high-level meetings early on Monday, shortly before powerful religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr claimed he was withdrawing from politics, leading his supporters to storm government headquarters in Baghdad.

The fighting that ensued and went on into Tuesday between the supporters of the Sadrist movement and security forces in the city’s Green Zone left at least 30 dead and many more wounded.

Al-Sadr on Tuesday afternoon gave his supporters 60 minutes to leave the zone and apologised in a move that was seen by some analysts as trying to dodge responsibility, but nevertheless led to restoring a relative state of calm.

Throughout the two days of chaos, Iranian authorities remained relatively silent about the political aspects, mostly focusing on ensuring the safety and security of thousands of Iranian pilgrims making the journey into Iraq by land or air for the Arbaeen gatherings.

After calm was restored, Iran’s foreign ministry in a statement on Wednesday thanked the government and people of Iraq for “passing a major sedition” through their patience and tact.

In addition to the next round of Tehran’s direct negotiations with rival Saudi Arabia, which has been delayed due to instability in host nation Iraq, the Iraqi foreign minister also discussed local politics in the Iranian capital.

“Establishing security and stability in Iraq can only be facilitated through dialogue between all of the country’s political factions based on the constitution, and with the goal of reaching consensus on forming a new government,” Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi was quoted as telling Hussein by his website.

“Iraq’s initiatives and efforts to improve the atmosphere of cooperation between regional countries without foreign intervention will be effective in strengthening regional convergence,” Raisi also said in a jab at the US and Western presence in Iraq and across the region.

The Iranian president’s comments seemingly ran counter to al-Sadr’s “revolutionary” stance, as his movement had tried to form a “national majority government” for nearly 10 months following a win in the October 2021 parliamentary elections before a mass resignation of his lawmakers.

Iran has been in favour of the consensus mechanism – based on the constitution – that was formed in the post-2003 US invasion era, but al-Sadr has at times presented himself as an opponent of Iranian influence in Iraq despite having some ties with Iran himself, having studied in the seminaries in the Iranian city of Qom.

‘Political dead-end’

Iran is not interested in micro-managing Iraqi politics, instead prioritising any destabilisation that could jeopardise its own national security, according to Mohammad Saleh Sedghian, director of the Arabic Center for Iranian Studies.

“What matters most to Iran is that there needs to be stability in Iraq. The two have a shared 1,400km [870-mile]-long border line and were at war for eight years [during the 1980s], and now whatever security issue happens in Iraq is somehow reflected in Iran, whether good or bad,” Sedghian told Al Jazeera.

“When the Sadrist movement occupied the Iraqi parliament building, Iran didn’t interfere and it doesn’t want to interfere now.”

But, regardless of what Iran wants, the analyst said al-Sadr reached a “political dead-end” on multiple fronts.

For one, Sedghian said, the powerful figure tried to form an administration by allying himself with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and Sunni leader Mohamed Al-Halbousi, both of whom wield influence but do not represent the entirety of their respective groups and people.

This led to the forced dissolution of the parliament, followed by an ultimately failed effort to shut down the judiciary.

Another significant blow was dealt to al-Sadr when spiritual Shia leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who resides in Qom, on Sunday made the surprise announcement that he is stepping down as a religious authority due to health reasons.

He said his followers should emulate Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, instead of the Shia centres in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf.

Al-Haeri is not the greatest marji’ (Shia authority) in Qom or Najaf, but he had close ties with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father, who selected him as the next marji’ in his will shortly before being assassinated in 1999 for opposing the rule of Saddam Hussein.

“Haeri has basically told al-Sadr that you’re not a mujtahid [religious authority] and you, therefore, don’t have the Sharia qualifications for top political leadership. This was the last straw after al-Sadr’s political defeats in the past few months, leaving him no choice but to withdraw from political life,” Sedghian said.

The analyst, however, pointed out that this might not be al-Sadr’s final appearance as a politician as he has withdrawn and made comebacks before, but predicted he will be out for at least five years due to the severity of Monday and Tuesday’s events.

‘Strategic depth’

Iran and Iraq have historical, cultural and religious ties that make the two “deeply intertwined” like none other of the countries in their vicinity, according to Middle East analyst and former Iranian diplomat Hadi Afghahi.

“Afghanistan can’t replace Iraq for Iran, neither can Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or even Turkey – with whom we have a higher volume of trade than Iraq,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Especially in meetings with high-level Iraqi officials who come to see the supreme leader, I’ve heard many times that the supreme leader clearly states that Iraq is the strategic depth of Iran and Iran is the strategic depth of Iraq. That is not something he says lightly or about many other countries.”

According to Afghahi, the US and Israel would rather see Iraq fragmented into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish divisions, something that would be to the detriment of Iraq, Iran and the region.

“The unity, territorial integrity and security of Iraq is paramount to the Islamic Republic, and the more stable Iraq is, the more it will benefit both nations,” he said.

The analyst remains unconvinced that al-Sadr is quitting politics as the leader has made the announcement several times before, adding that he views al-Sadr’s latest move as “emotional and psychological manoeuvring” aimed at his followers.

“But after the recent events in the Green Zone and the bloody fighting, things are not going back to where they were before,” Afghahi said, adding that the Iran-backed Coordination Framework alliance is now in a strengthened position following the blows dealt to al-Sadr.

“I think al-Sadr is now in a very weakened and fragile position. His comments in the press conference on Tuesday showed weakness and fear about the ramifications of the blood that has been shed and Iraq’s security condition for himself and his followers,” he said.

He said it remains to be seen if the Coordination Framework can reinstate the parliament and form its own government, or if al-Sadr is going to interfere again.

“All eyes are now on al-Sadr, and also on the judiciary and parliament and [caretaker prime minister] Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to see whether they will continue to allow al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam to keep their weapons or they will be disarmed,” he said.

“And we must see whether a potential disarming will be done peacefully or create a new fight itself.”

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