Bombshell: SCIRI splits with Iran, swears loyalty to Sistani

Huge news. To refresh: SCIRI is the name of one of Iraq’s biggest Shiite parties, short for the “Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.” It was formed in Iran in the early 1980s by Iraqi Khomeinists with the goal of replacing Saddam with Iranian-style clerical rule. Since the invasion, it’s presented itself as a peaceful, mainstream political party (successfully enough to earn its party leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a trip to the White House in December) while maintaining a militia — the Badr Organization, a.k.a. Badr Brigades — that functions as Sadr’s only serious rival for Shiite paramilitary dominance. Having kept counsel with the mullahs through the years, they’re widely suspected of being Iran’s chief proxy in Iraq.

Which makes this a rather atomic bombshell:

Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite party will make key changes to its platform, party officials said on Friday, in a move that will increasingly align it with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani…

Under the new platform, the party would get its guidance from the Shi’ite religious establishment as before, but more from Sistani, SCIRI officials said.

That would mark a shift from SCIRI’s current platform, which says the group gets its guidance from the religious establishment of Welayat al Faqih, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.

They’re also changing their name to the “Supreme Islamic Iraq Council,” dropping “Revolution” because, they claim, with Saddam gone the revolution has been achieved. Iraqslogger calls that a bald-faced lie and reminds us that getting rid of Saddam was, and perhaps still is, only half of the equation:

SCIRI – as the party’s name indicates – saw itself as the “Iraqi branch” of the Khomeinist movement. Al-Hayat said that a statement by the party announced that SCIRI will change its name, and remove the term “revolution” because “it signified combating Saddam Husain.” That argument is patently incorrect, since the party’s literature and history clearly indicate that it did not perceive itself as a mere movement of contestation against the defunct dictator, but as an extension to Khomeini’s revolutionary vision.

The question of the hour is whether they’re dropping the “R” and naming Sistani, who allegedly opposes Iranian-style rule by cleric, their spiritual leader because they’ve sincerely embraced democracy (Reuters says they’re promising to add democratic language to their new platform) or whether it’s a PR ploy to appeal to voters’ patriotism by “Iraqifying” the party’s image. Their main rivals, the Sadrists, are noisily nationalistic and, as I’ve mentioned recently, are reaching out to Sunnis to make themselves look even more so. The more “Iraqi” they become in the public’s mind, the more “Iranian” SCIRI becomes by contrast, which will do it no favors come election time. So one possible explanation is that they’re simply trying to keep up with Sadr by doing the same thing illegal immigrants did last year after the first few marches when they switched their Mexican flags for American ones.

Another possibility is that Sadr himself might be starting to earn a reputation among Iraqis as an Iranian tool and SCIRI’s trying to capitalize by outflanking him and remaking itself as the “real” Iraqis. David Satterfield said yesterday that the U.S. knows Sadr’s been in Iran since January; if he knows, some Iraqis must know too and word’s probably long since gotten around. There have been reports, too, of the Mahdi Army (or at least certain parts) reorienting itself towards the mullahs as well as rumors of a military training camp attended mostly by JAM militiamen outside Tehran. Maybe that’s why Sadr’s suddenly decided to talk to the Sunnis: he’s trying to scrub the Persian fingerprints off of himself. If so, it leaves SCIRI with an opening to shed its image as Iranian stooges and present itself as the true Iraqi patriots, leveraging Sistani’s religious authority among Shiites in the process. That could come in mighty handy later, not only in the elections but if and when SCIRI and the Sadrists finally square off and each side starts looking for recruits.

Or, of course, it could all be a big ruse concocted by Iran to make its puppet look a bit less wooden and more like a real boy, possibly to give it more leverage with the U.S., even while it continues to pull the strings. Or it could be a genuine break between the two, a logical reaction by SCIRI to some behind-the-scenes decision by the mullahs to make Sadr their pawn of choice given his cult of personality inside Iraq and larger military force. No telling for sure, but these Iraqi Kremlinology posts sure are fun. (For me, not for you.)

Iraqslogger wonders whether this will all backfire once the SCIRI faithful realize that their ostensible religious leader, Khamenei, isn’t their religious leader anymore. Ironically for an Islamist party, SCIRI’s counting on their patriotism to trump their faith.

Update (5/13): A day later, SCIRI is denying the reports of any split with Iran.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on December 09, 2022