Just two decades ago, few Americans knew who Muqtada al-Sadr was. This was not because of their ignorance of Iraq. After all, few Iraqis knew who he was. A growing number of Americans had studied Iraq, especially after the first Gulf War. They knew—even if they did not fully appreciate—the complexity of Iraq’s social fabric and the importance of the hawza in Najaf and the grand ayatollahs living and teaching there. At Langley and in the bowels of the Pentagon (where I worked at the time), analysts boned up on Iraqi tribal dynamics. The CIA coopted and debriefed family members visiting relatives inside Iraq to try to answer questions as they arose.
The United States often looks for a quick fix. It has an entire multibillion-dollar national security apparatus to simplify complex issues into one-page decision papers for secretaries or presidents. Certainly, this was the case with the 2003 Iraq War. Immediately prior to the beginning of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign, the CIA believed it had pinpointed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein at a Baghdad restaurant and blew it to smithereens hoping to decapitate Iraq in one go. As the State Department and the Defense Department argued over the shape of the new government, Langley tried another end run, seeking to put Nizar al-Khazraji, a defected Baath-era general, into power. That, too, failed.
As Baghdad fell, the United States played its last card. American officials hoped to liaise with Iraq’s clerical leadership through Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, son of the late but widely admired Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei. A week after Khoei returned to Najaf, he visited the Shrine of Imam Ali. Out of respect for the holiness of the site, Khoei left his armed security detachment at its gates. Inside the shrine, a mob directed by Muqtada al-Sadr, the youngest son of the martyred but hugely respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, set upon him and hacked him to death. Muqtada had inherited the family name but not its reputation for religious piety. Unlike his two brothers who, like his father, were killed by Saddam Hussein’s security forces, Muqtada never excelled as a student. He was a gifted orator but, compared to his peers, shallow in theology. Long before his death, Muqtada’s father had written him off.
What Sadr lacked in intellect and piety, he made up for in ambition and corruption. For him, Najaf was less the burial site of Imam Ali and more a lucrative pilgrimage site from which to accumulate wealth. He cast himself as an authentic defender of Iraqi sovereignty, even as he sold the country to neighboring Iran. He used mafia tactics to extort money and corner markets, and mob violence to intimidate rivals. His populism found fertile ground in the slums of Baghdad, and he became a potent political force. Even as the hawza despised him, Iraqi politicians engaged him. Whatever the faction, their logic was similar: Sadr inspired the masses, but he could not control them. His faction was fissiparous. By feigning respect, rivals could assuage his ego while peeling away supporters.
Tehran had another strategy to handle Sadr. Iranian strategists never put all their eggs in one basket. Even as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided weaponry, intelligence, and cash to Sadr, it also supported groups such as the Badr Corps. Whenever Sadr would become too difficult to control, Tehran would simply shift money to his rivals.
Perhaps the thin-skinned Sadr took Iran’s inconsistent support personally. Or perhaps it was political prostitution and a desire to make Iran bid higher for his support. Regardless, at some point several years ago, Sadr began searching for other patrons. He found them with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates.
Washington exists in a perpetual state of historical amnesia and wishful thinking. Diplomats and intelligence analysts internalized Sadr’s new anti-Iranian posture and began to consider whether he might provide some hope to counter the growing internal power of Iranian-sponsored militias inside Iraq. While Sadr refused to meet or talk directly with American officials, dialogue has continued for years through selected intermediaries. Today, many American officials believe Sadr’s de facto alliance with Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party is both substantive and symbolic of his intellectual turn.
To believe Sadr has changed, however, is nonsense. And to believe that he seeks an incorrupt, liberal, or even neutral Iraq is also nonsense. Rather, to understand Sadr, it is important to appreciate his true ambition. He opposes and now seeks to tear down the current Iraqi system not because its inherent corruption grates at him, but rather because its political give-and-take interferes with his broader agenda.
Likewise, his current antagonism toward Iran has less to do with any fundamental disagreement with the Islamic Republic than with Sadr’s unwillingness to share power or subordinate himself. In Iran, the theological basis of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s rule is enshrined in the concept of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist). Sadr has ambition to lead, but he knows he can never acquire the influence once wielded by his father or current Najaf-based ayatollahs because he lacks piety. Within a system of velayat-e faqih, however, he might impose his will politically more than theologically.
Certainly, Sadr would reject this if challenged. While Sadr’s followers have stood for election—and, on his orders, resigned en masse—Sadr has always stood apart. This allows him to avoid the responsibility of governance and the taint of failure. Here, there are similarities between Sadr and Iranian revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the months before Khomeini unseated the shah’s order in Iran, he denied any interest in personal power and insisted he sought only democracy. Many in the West lapped it up. Today, Sadr follows the same playbook, as does the State Department. Diplomats believe Sadr has changed, but there is nothing beyond his rhetoric to believe it so.
Sadr may obfuscate his goals for tactical reasons, but when it comes to ideology, he means what he says. He despises the West. His anti-Israeli diatribes are sincere. So too is his hatred of gays. He is a mirror image of Khomeini, albeit without the religious credentials. Like Khomeini and Khamenei, he seeks to impose that which he cannot gain by consensus.
For two decades, the Iraqi political elite contained Sadr. Across Baghdad’s political spectrum, however, the only consensus today is that the post-2003 order has failed. The system is collapsing. In such a situation, Sadr becomes more dangerous. It is here that the White House, State Department, and CIA’s belief that they can channel or control Sadr is so dangerous. They believe they are playing a sophisticated game, but by giving space or supporting coalitions in which Sadr is a part, they are repeating Jimmy Carter’s naïveté in the months before Khomeini’s victory.
Baghdad 2022 is like Tehran 1978. It is imperative Washington understand just how dangerous the situation is now.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.