An Iranian analyst has weighed in on the roles Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi and influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are playing in Washington’s agenda of diminishing Iran’s influence in the region.
The Persian-language Fararu website has, in an analytical piece, discussed Washington’s scheme to chip away at Iran’s leverage in the region. The highlights of the article follow.
There have been different analyses of the strategy of “reducing Iran’s influence in the region” pushed by Washington in recent days following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Many experts have warned Iranian diplomatic and military officials against the current situation in Iraq as well as Washington and Riyadh’s activities in that domain. There is also concern that Iraq will turn toward the United States and Saudi Arabia in a calculated process.
Amid Tillerson’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Riyadh expressed its willingness to enhance economic relations with Baghdad. Therefore, economic means has been used along with political and diplomatic measures to advance the US’ strategy.
Scheme To Divide Iran, Iraq
During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Tillerson called on forces of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units to return to their homes. However, the Iraqi premier’s office, in a statement, rejected Tillerson’s demand and strongly criticized his remarks.
But other developments are unfolding against the same backdrop. Movements by influential Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr are among those developments.
After several high-profile meetings with leaders of the regional countries in recent months, Sadr sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah last Monday.
Jordan announced in a statement that the centerpiece of the talks during the Jordanian king’s meeting with Sadr was the necessity of boosting trade and economic ties between Amman and Baghdad.
Still, the Associated Press has described the meeting as a step toward efforts to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
Jordan is an ally of Saudi Arabia and has misgivings, like Riyadh, over Iran’s influence in the region.
Muqtada Sadr’s meeting with the king of Jordan took place hours after King Abdullah met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and no further details have been released on that.
Sadr had already travelled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in mid-summer as well. All these three countries are critical of Iran’s behaviour in the region.
After meeting the Saudi crown prince, Sadr stressed that he has the same viewpoints as Mohammed bin Salman. He described Saudi Arabia as a “powerful father of Arab nations” which tries to establish peace in the region.
Muqtada Sadr is also opposed to the activities of the Popular Mobilization Units. He had earlier stressed the need to dismantle the group, saying the existence of such troops outside the framework of the government will lead to major problems and negative consequences.
Muqtada Sadr’s Change of Heart
Now, the question is, “What role do Muqtada Sadr and Haider al-Abadi play in the US strategy?”
University professor Ali Bigdeli has weighed in on the issue in an interview with Fararu.
“The US and Saudi Arabia are seeking to decrease Iran’s political and military influence in the region and somehow clip Iran’s wings. To that end, they have even made efforts to decrease Iran’s influence on Hamas,” said the analyst.
“Two and a half months ago, Haider al-Abadi announced in his first trip to Saudi Arabia that ‘I’m an Arab before being a Shiite, and I won’t repeat the mistake that Hafez Assad made in
Syria, and [won’t set foot in] the path his son treaded whereby he left the Arab world’. But Abadi underlined that under the current circumstances, he cannot leave the situation he is in,” said Bigdeli.
“On the other hand, during Abadi’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Tillerson announced that the Popular Mobilization Units (Shiite forces close to Iran) must return to their homes. In my idea, he wouldn’t make such remarks without Abadi’s green light. A strategy must have been worked out based on which Tillerson makes such comments before the Iraqi premier rejects them,” the analyst noted.
“The US strategy, in the first place, is to turn the Iran issue into an international phenomenon, so that the world public opinion would be prepared to counter Iran. The US has always adopted this strategy. It did the same thing regarding the nuclear crisis. The behaviour of the US and diplomatic trips to the US and even the meetings and conferences held in the country all suggest that the public have been galvanized into bothering Iran from inside, and promote Iranophobia outside Iran,” he added.
“This means the US has defined its international strategy as ‘Iranophobia’ and its strategy for inside Iran as ‘bothering Iran.’ The initiative has just gotten off the ground, and Iranian politicians should not take it lightly. This strategy is very serious. They want to see Iran not have even one friendly country around it. A look at Iran-Afghanistan relations shows efforts are underway to fuel enmity between the two countries,” he noted.
As a first step to create an enemy, says Bigdeli, they have turned to Iraq.
“They will not be able to take Iraq out of Iran’s influence any time soon, but they are making the preliminary arrangements for it. One of the United States’ concerns is that the Popular Mobilization Units may turn into a powerful military institution in the country. If that happens, the US will not be able to do anything. This will be dangerous for Saudi Arabia, too. So, They want to stop the activities of the PMU before it becomes a stable, powerful entity, and as Tillerson puts it, its forces should go back to their homes,” says the commentator.
On Muqtada Sadr’s role in this scenario, the analyst said, “Muqtada Sadr’s influence in Iraq is fading due to Iran’s power. Large numbers of Muqtada Sadr’s supporters have joined the Popular Mobilization Units, and Muqtada Sadr’s status and dignity are on the wane. Maybe that is one of the reasons behind his leaning toward Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, he is among the people who would like to see the Popular Mobilization Units decrease their activities in Iraq,” he says.
“The same goes for some other figures and groups in Iraq. Even some members of the Islamic Dawa Party are distancing themselves from Iran.”
“The Popular Mobilization Units has what it takes to become even stronger than the Lebanese Hezbollah movement,” he says.
Bigdeli believes Abadi is a very skillful player and will turn toward Washington in Iraq’s future developments. He will also seek to reinforce the Iraqi army to contain further influence by the Popular Mobilization Units.
“Abadi is very close to the US … and has very close relations with Washington. He is very much different from Nouri Maliki and is able to continue on his current path.’
“Abadi is a smart politician. He knows he should move step by step. He cannot put the Popular Mobilization Units aside all of a sudden. What is important is that the message [to do so] has been sent by Tillerson,”