Al-Sadr in Jidda: Are Saudis looking for channel to Iran, or anti-Iran Client?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday paid a visit to Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea port, Jidda, at the invitation of the Saudi royal family. He was hosted by Crown Prince Muhmmad bin Salman, who is acting head of state while his father is on vacation.

Al-Sadr has not been in Saudi Arabia since 2006. Inasmuch as he is a hard line Shiite and heads his own hard line militia, the “Peace Brigades,” he might not have come first to mind if you were thinking about Iraqis that the militantly fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchy in Saudi Arabia might invite to the kingdom.

In fact, despite his Shiite fundamentalism, al-Sadr is politically even-handed in ways that might appeal to Riyadh. Although Western analysts have repeatedly pegged him wrongly as a cat’s paw of Iran, in fact al-Sadr is an Iraqi nativist whose movement resents the influence of Iran on Iraqi Shiism.

Al-Sadr has all right relations with Iran and did flee there for studies in 2007 when Gen. David Petraeus tried to have him arrested as a sectarian religious leader responsible for deaths of Sunnis. But he has tended to maintain his independence from Tehran’s ayatollahs.

Al-Sadr opposes the tendency to see the Shiite militias in Iraq as a stand alone force, sort of a National Guard (a line pushed by Iran) and rather wants them absorbed into the regular army.

Al-Sadr opposes Iranian intervention in Syria (and, indeed, all foreign intervention in Syria, including that of Russia).

Last March, al-Sadr called for formal peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, since those two countries are on all but a war footing. Al-Sadr argues that some face to face summits among leaders of the two countries could tamp down sectarian tensions and lead to a new era of good feeling in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has lost its struggle with Iran over the past 15 years. Iraq went from a Saudi asset under Saddam Hussein to an Iranian asset after the Shiites won the parliamentary elections in 2005 and after.

Saudi Arabia used to be influential in Lebanon, with the Sunni al-Hariri family gaining the prime ministership. Rafiq al-Hariri had worked in and made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and was close to the royal family. He was assassinated in 2005, after which most Sunnis and Christians allied to launch a popular movement aimed at forcing Bashar al-Assad of Syria to withdraw his occupation troops from the country, which succeeded. Al-Assad is allied with Iran and with Lebanon’s Shiite militia, Hizbullah, so this withdrawal weakened Iran. But the outbreak of the Syrian civil war made Lebanon’s Christians choose between an al-Assad-Shiite-Iran axis and a Sunni-Saudi one. Once the rebels in Syria went toward Sunni fundamentalism, they scared the Christian horses. Many Lebanese Christians declared themselves neutral or allied with Lebanese Shiites against the rise of Sunni Salafism and other forms of fundametnalism, which were Backed by Saudi Arabia. Hence, Hizbullah is now in the Lebanese cabinet, something of which Donald Trump is unaware, and the current Lebanese government tilts heavily toward al-Assad and Iran and away from Saudi Arabia.

The Baath regime in Syria had been allied with Iran since the 1980s, not on religious but on Realpolitik grounds. For a while after the outbreak of attempted revolution in 2011, it looked as though Syria might come to be ruled by the Sunni majority and Saudi Arabia hoped to pick it up as a client. In the end, Iran and Russia intervened successfully to prop up the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad and to defeat Saudi proxies such as the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam) and other hard line Salafi guerrilla groups.

Then in Yemen the nationalist regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown 2011-2012 in favor of a more pluralist set of forces. But in 2014 the Zaydi Shiite Houthi militia took over the capital of Sanaa. The Houthis are Yemeni nativists who deeply resent Saudi hegemony over Yemen. Saudi Arabia accuses them of being clients of Iran but in fact that relationship is minor. Still, the southwestern Saudi border is much less secure than it had been, and the Houthis have managed to hold on in the capital and its hinterland.

When Saudi Arabia and its allies tried to pressure Qatar into falling into line behind Riyadh’s policies, of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and rolling back street politics and freedom of the press in favor of military dictatorships in the region, Qatar resisted. Iran came to Doha’s defense. In essence the Saudis pushed Qatar from having correct but sometimes tense relations with Iran to needing Tehran as a friend.

So Saudi Arabia is 0 for 5 in regional geopolitics and Iran is sitting relatively pretty.

The Yemen War, the brainchild of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is said to be hemorrhaging money from Saudi Arabia’s coffers at a time of low oil prices and retrenchment.

One possibility is that Riyadh is looking for a back channel to Iran, in hopes of coming to a negotiated settlement of some of these high-profile conflicts. Most regional politicians and parties with good access to the ayatollahs in Tehran are on the outs with Saudi Arabia, which would not trust them. Al-Sadr in that regard is perfect. An Arab nationalist, a pan-Islamist in politics who has given aid to Sunnis and an anti-interventionist in Syria, many of his positions would be appealing to the Saudis despite his hard line Shiite fundamentalism. If they need to send a message to Tehran, he would be a plausible envoy.

Another less optimistic interpretation is that the Saudis are looking for chinks in Iran’s armor and exploring whether al-Sadr might like Saudi support in his quest to make Iraq less dependent on Iran.

One thing is for sure. The Saudis did not invite a major Iraqi Shiite cleric to Jidda just to inquire after his health.


Related video:

AP: “Saudi FM in Italy discusses Iran, Qatar”

13 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for the thorough reporting, we need to know these developments.

    As to conclusions and predictions and end-games, obviously just about all human attitudes and relationships are in flux in 2017, and any tendencies seen now could be blown away by the next geopolitical “hurricane-level” crisis to befall us.

  2. Only a unified Muslim world can stand up to Islamaphobia.
    Saudi Arabia must stop dropping bombs on other nations, and conspiring with Israel. It should stop trying to influencing other nations and trying to spread their brand of Islam, and even radicalizing others. Then is should stop treating Iran like an enemy and unite the Muslim world…..that would be a miracle, but the answer.

  3. Perhaps another factor to consider: by weakening Iran in Syria they may give the Sunni fundamentalist insurgents some air to continue their fight against the Syrian government. That may prevent their complete defeat and the subsequent return home of some fighters to Saudi Arabia.

    The Saudi fighters returning home may redirect their hunger for power toward Riyadh. Keeping them in Syria probably suits the monarchy just fine.

  4. Thank you for providing this impressive list of Saudi setbacks vis-à-vis Iran during the past few decades and for highlighting Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Jidda to meet with Mohammed bin Salman and what it can mean for the relations between the three countries. Clearly, any rapprochement between the Iraqis and the Saudis would be welcome because since the ousting of Saddam Hussein, which Saudi Arabia initially helped to achieve and Iran’s Reformist President Mohammad Khatam strongly opposed link to
    relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been very tense. One reason for Saudi hostility towards Iran has been the Saudis’ perception of themselves as the leaders of the Islamic world, certainly of the Arab world. Therefore, they cannot tolerate any encroachment of non-Arab countries into any Arab state (although it seems with the exception of the United States and Israel).

    However, Saudi Arabia does not possess the historical, religious, intellectual or political clout to act as the leader of the Islamic or even the Sunni world. Its significance to the world has been due to its vast reserves of oil, which is a dwindling asset, but historically since the establishment of the Umayyad and then the Abbasid, the Fatimid and finally the Ottoman caliphates Arabia lost any significance in the Islamic world apart from being the venue for the Hajj pilgrimage.

    As to Saudi motive in receiving Muqtada al-Sadr, I believe that the Saudis are trying very hard to separate Iraq from Iran. After refusing to recognize the Iraqi government that emerged after Saddam’s ouster and even not sending an ambassador to Baghdad, recently they have tried hard to woo the Iraqis. In the great jamboree that they organized to impress President Trump they invited the Kurdish Sunni president of Iraq to attend that gathering. About two weeks ago Iraq’s interior minister Qasim Al Araji met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince. Iraqi Prime minister Haider Al Abadi also visited the kingdom last month. Another interesting development has been the veteran Iraqi Shia leader Ammar al-Hakim’s decision to step down from the hereditary leadership of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was seen as an Iranian proxy force in Iraq, and to head a new party, the National Wisdom Movement, which is seen as a soft defection from Iran.

    Personally, I believe that all of these are positive developments. It is not healthy for either Iraq or Iran for Iraq to be seen as an Iranian protectorate. Some clerics in Iran have gone too far in their relations with the Shi’ite government in Iraq and a more balanced relationship between Iran and Iraq is good for both countries.

    But I believe that this time too the Saudi goal of kicking Iran out of Iraq will fail, because the majority of the Iraqis have not forgotten the atrocities that they suffered at the hand of Saddam or the large number of terrorist onslaughts in Iraq, often supported by hard-line Saudis and certainly influenced by intense anti-Shi’ite Wahhabi thinking. The best option for all the countries in the region is to have friendly relations and develop regional security arrangements so that we do not see the repetition of Saddam’s invasion of Iran or Kuwait, or the Saudi bombardment of Yemen due to some socio-political rivalries.

    • Iraq has never compensated Iran for its 8-year death and destruction and instead under US pressure has paid reparations to Kuwait and Saudis. Just on this fact alone, I make an exception and say that Iran has every right (As long as US is in Iraq) to control Iraqi political discourse.

  5. Or this could be about Kurdistan and its planed referendum on independence, His views are more in line with the boy king and opposite Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian governments. or I would hope Backchannel for Yemen or picking their own /Bahrain social scabs.

  6. “In fact, despite his Shiite fundamentalism, al-Sadr is politically even-handed in ways that might appeal to Riyadh. Although Western analysts have repeatedly pegged him wrongly as a cat’s paw of Iran, in fact al-Sadr is an Iraqi nativist whose movement resents the influence of Iran on Iraqi Shiism. ”

    “Last March, al-Sadr called for formal peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, since those two countries are on all but a war footing. Al-Sadr argues that some face to face summits among leaders of the two countries could tamp down sectarian tensions and lead to a new era of good feeling in the Middle East.”

    Very useful insights and a welcome positive note.

  7. Mr. Sadr would be a fool to display outright hostility to Iran. He may die in a car accident or be totally marginalized in Iraqi politics.

  8. Great analysis. Excellent comments. Well informed readers. Lets not forget that the center of Shi’a world was for 1000+ years in Karbala and Najaf. Not Qum. Sadr is an Arab. Iraqi. and the legitimate spiritual leader of the global Shi’a hierarchy. Not Khomaini, Khamaini or any other Persian.

  9. Hey another question – Is the majority of the army the Assad/Baath regime Sunni? Officers mainly Alawi? Are not the majority of the citizens of the current rump Syria (Latakiya to Damascus) still more Sunni than Alawi? Just wondering.

    • Syrian officer corps and high state officials disproportionately Alawi Shiite. However, secular Sunnis tend to side with regime. It isn’t about Sunni-Shiite, it is about state clients who benefit and non-clients who are excluded.

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