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Maliki, Sadr, and the Swirl of Conjecture

by ALI GHARIB in New York

19 Oct 2010 11:272 Comments

Claims of Iranian string pulling rest on scant evidence.
[ opinion ] When I checked Tehran Bureau's valuable news roundup on Monday, I was a bit surprised to see three articles promoting the same view that Iran had ordered cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's move into Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's camp in the Iraqi coalition struggle.

No named sources have come through to corroborate this contention and, as such, emerging details are few and far between. I'm not saying such influence was not exerted, just that when there is doubt, it befits news organizations to acknowledge an opposing view.

Both articles by the Guardian's Michael Chulov in Baghdad rely on these unnamed sources ("senior officials in Iraq"), who could well be members of the opposition -- as is Chulov's only named source, who does not provide information on the pressure but speaks in platitudes about "Iranian occupation." Furthermore, the initial example of pressure on Sadr is actually between two Iraqis and merely mentions Iranian involvement but provides no evidence. Iranians -- specifically a Guard commander -- are described as having later traveled with Maliki's emissaries to Iran, but there is, again, no evidence of pressure, let alone an Iranian-brokered deal. The articles do speak about Sadr getting blessings from a "consortium of the Middle East's most-powerful Shia Islamic players," but why would a cleric not go to higher authorities to have questions answered? That some of those authorities are in Iran does not flesh out this theory.

Though some on the right and left here in the United States have made this accusation, there is little concrete evidence to support it. And there are accordingly many skeptics out there, among them on the right Fouad Ajami and Max Boot, and, on the left, Michael Hanna, whose Atlantic piece on the subject I covered for LobeLog.

Several other theories -- and that's what this talk of a "secret deal" describes: theories (using unnamed and even unidentified sources) -- put forth reasons for Sadr's move. One is that Sadr, after being outside the government for so long, is interested in being able to leverage his significant street power (and parliamentary seats) to gain access to state coffers. This means folding some of his militia into security forces and other things like access to powerful cabinet positions and the like.

In fact, none of the explanations of Iranian pressure have, as of yet, given a rationale for Sadr abandoning his pronounced Iraqi nationalist streak and acquiescing to Iranian demands. One reason for cutting the deal, however, could indicate that this instinct rages on: the alternate coalition often proposed by the press -- the Allawi block -- is not truly viable and would likely be unable to form a stable coalition to govern. Perhaps Sadr saw his opportunity to play kingmaker as a way to end the impasse that has been dogging Iraq, which would allow the government to truly get on with state business.

I would add that earlier this year, a rumor was floated that Sadr may relocate to Beirut, where he has family roots. This might extricate him from Iranian pressures due to residing in Qom. These are admittedly rumors, but worth considering as long as they are kept in perspective.

But I would note that the Iraqi Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) -- traditionally Iran's most reliable client in Iraq -- has not backed Maliki, though its militia has (the Badr Organization ran its own parliamentary candidates). Juan Cole notes the same curious split, though uses it as evidence to declare, "Game, set, match to Iran."

It's all very convoluted, and concrete facts are few and far between.

As I say, I offer nothing but theories and conjecture in this argument, and would note that those who have sealed the deal on Iranian occupation of Iraq do much the same thing. I'm only making a case for a balanced presentation of information that does not portray conjecture and hole-filled reporting as fact.

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist who blogs daily on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.

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Let's see now:

Where does Sadr reside and receive his important religious instruction/grooming? Iran.

From where do Badr element receive paychecks? Iran.

Where was Maliki on a state visit yesterday? Iran.

etc., etc.

I tell you, Ali, you're asking for a more balanced presentation on this subject? Where's your outrage towards the heavily tilted over-representation of anti-Iran political perspectives published here on Tehran Bureau? That's what you should be crowing about.

Pirouz / October 19, 2010 3:26 PM

Ali, thanks very much for your observations. The roundup as currently constituted, while it sometimes offers bracketed background information, does not provide independent commentary on the excerpts we run. Where there are multiple significant perspectives, denials, etc. that are current, as Tehran Bureau's rounder-up at the moment, I do look to create a dialectical narrative via excerpts from widely varying perspectives.

Our current format is not ideal for handling a situation such as this, where the significant current reports reflect just one angle and there have not yet been substantive rebuttals. Your observations are valuable in prompting thoughts about how to make the format more adaptable to such circumstances. In this particular case, given the anonymous sourcing of the story to date, the headline I wrote, "Iran Molds Deal for Allied Iraq Gov," might well have been bettered by "Report: Iran Molds Deal for Allied Iraq Gov."

Pirouz, I assume when you write "anti-Iran," that's shorthand for "opposed to the current Iranian regime" and/or "opposed to its theocratic governance system." It would be most disturbing to imagine that Tehran Bureau was featuring items that are actually "anti-Iran." If you did mean "anti-Iran" when you wrote "anti-Iran," please identify some of these items.

It's regrettable that this website offers a selection of political perspectives that you find less than ideal, and admirable that you are nonetheless willing to overcome your outrage and devote so much time and attention to it.

Dan Geist / October 19, 2010 10:37 PM