Monday, May 14, 2007

Ali for One, and One for Ali

The big news over the weekend in intra-Shiite political intrigue was the roll-out of the new SCIRI product (before Labor Day no less - somewhere Andy Card weeps). In conjunction with some of the more substantial shifts in tone and platform, SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) announced a name change to something approximating SIIC (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) - although some have suggested SICI (Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq).

While this rearranging of words and letters might appear to be a mere re-branding, there is some significance to the modification. Namely, the party formerly known as SCIRI is looking to establish a stronger "Iraqi" identity, and thus is shedding a name that itself paid homage to the Iranian "Revolution" - which is no mere accident, as SCIRI itself was formed at the behest of (and with ongoing active support from) Iran's leadership dating back to Khomeini himself. Jim Henley is the early front-runner for this story's snark award (also a contender in post title bingo): a [SCIRI] spokesman won’t quite say, “We changed the name because the ‘Revolution’ is over, and we won.”

As Juan Cole points out, though, the official SCIRI spin on the use of the term "revolution" is that it denotes the struggle against Saddam, and so Jim's explanation may not be that far off the mark (leaving aside the Iranian implications).

Of more impact than the name change, though, are indications that SCIRI may be willing to compromise on its erstwhile desire to "federalize" Iraq, and thus carve out a separate Shiite region in southern Iraq akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north. As Reidar Visser explains in an extremely informative piece:

Firstly, the document represents a notable softening of tone on the question of federalism in Iraq. In 2005 and 2006, SCIRI held a high profile in advocating the establishment of a single Shiite region of nine governorates from Basra to Baghdad. This region is not mentioned in the recent press release; instead there is general praise for the idea of federalism and emphasis on the need to follow the Iraqi constitution in this question, where after all a single Shiite region is but one of several possible outcomes (and, in fact, a rather unlikely one at that, given the complicated procedures for forming a federal region). Indeed, the explicit mention in the press release of “governorates” among the building blocks of the future federal Iraq suggests that SCIRI is now moving away from the view that the entire country should necessarily become subdivided into federal regions.

Here, again, SCIRI bolsters its "Iraqi" nationalist bona fides in a policy position move that is consistent with the name change. There is another aspect of this subtle adjustment worth mentioning: the shift away from federalism and toward advocacy for a unified Iraq also comports with the wishes of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. I wonder if Sistani's recent "bonding experience" with Moqtada al-Sadr (also a staunch opponent of federalization), helped SCIRI to see the light as it were.

It is likely that SCIRI is either bowing to pressure from Sistani (whose position on this matter is fortified by Sadr's support), or SCIRI is moving toward the nationalist position in order to siphon support from its political rival, the Sadrists. Or both. What will be interesting to watch is if the "new SCIRI" attempts to steal more support from the Sadrists by adopting that group's other popular positions - especially its anti-occupation stance. That would bring us pretty close to "game over" territory.

Whatever the motives may be, this move brings SCIRI closer in line with the other major Shiite players in the UIA, and such harmony has been an overriding goal of Sistani's from the beginning (that is, reducing tension and in-fighting between Shiite factions, while maintaining a united political front). That is why I remain unpersuaded by certain aspects of this analysis cited by Cole:

Al-Zaman adds its own analysis. Ahmad al-Musawi says that his sources in SCIRI told him that the changes made at the party convention look forward toward the next election. The United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of 17 Shiite religious parties that is led by SCIRI, has been falling apart. The Islamic Virtue Party or Fadhila pulled out its 15 MPs, and the Sadrists (32 seats) keep going in and out. It is also possible that SCIRI's remaining ally, the Da'wa Party, led by PM Nuri al-Maliki, will fall out with them.

The implication is that in the next elections, the Supreme Council may run as a list rather than under the rubric of the United Iraqi Alliance.

While SCIRI's "rebirth" better positions that party to survive on its own, and thus the recent maneuvers are certainly politically expedient, such a break would presumably anger Sistani and that would be an extremely risky move, to say the least. If necessary, they may go solo (especially if the UIA disintegrates on its own), but that would seem like a last resort.

Speaking of Sistani's renewed relevance, SCIRI also made noises concerning their allegiance to Sistani over Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. While some of the early press reports have claimed that SCIRI made a clean break with Khamenei in favor of Sistani, Reidar Visser suggests that such a stark realignment is overstated, at least for now:

The second important point related to the press release is illustrated by the stark discrepancy between leaked information to the press by SCIRI officials prior to the publication of the document, and its actual contents on one key issue: SCIRI’s relationship with Iran generally, and with that country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in particular. Some early media reports suggested that SCIRI were about to formally renounce their ties to Khamenei, in favour of greater emphasis on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. That sort of loud and clear renunciation would have been immensely helpful to the Iraqi political process, and, along with a more flexible position on federalism, could have helped the party emerge as a true moderating force in Iraqi politics. Accusations against SCIRI of “pro-Iranian” and “Safavid” loyalties could then have been more easily consigned to the realm of conspiracy theories.

Ultimately, however, no such clarification of the party’s role was included in SCIRI’s press release. The only mention of Sistani was in a non-committal statement that SCIRI “valued” the efforts (already construed in the Western mainstream media as a decisive “pledge”) of the higher clergy in Iraq, including Sistani. (This of course reflects the fact that SCIRI does not have a reciprocal relationship with the leading Iraqi ayatollah; they need him more than he needs them.) True, the language of the press release is admirable and politically correct as such, with a condemnation of all external meddling in Iraqi affairs. But the failure to clarify SCIRI’s relationship to Khamenei means that considerable ambiguity on this issue remains. [emph. added]

Despite the ambiguity, though, the trajectory is clear, and Visser is right to point out that SCIRI needs Sistani more than the reverse. Thus, SCIRI is trying to establish, or rehabilliate, its image as an "Iraqi" institution distinct from its Iranian roots/ties, and as part of this process SCIRI is publicly acknowledging, and acquiescing to, the dictates of Sistani (even if the media interpretation of this shift has been somewhat overblown).

As Visser points out in his closing paragraph, the version that the media is reporting likely came from SCIRI members using selective and slanted leaks to create the desired impression. This attempt at media manipulation is indicative of an internal schism in the SCIRI power base around issues of Iraqi identity/nationalism, federalism and fealty to Sistani vs. Khamenei. As a result, none of these initial movements should be taken as permanent. Further, one should not discount the possibility that SCIRI is making hollow rhetorical gestures for the sake of improving its public image, while in actuality, the hinted at follow through will stall and peter out.

Nevertheless, Sistani must be pleased with the recent turn of events. Just think, six months ago conventional wisdom was that Sistani had lost his clout and was being ignored by all the major players.

Whatever the eventual outcome, rumors of Sistani's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

[UPDATE: This IraqSlogger piece claims that the leadership of SCIRI has confirmed the more comprehensive re-alignment away from Khamenei and toward Sistani that Visser claimed was ambiguous. The IraqSlogger piece also claims that SCIRI reiterated its support for the federalist plan of creating a Shiite-dominated region in the south (rather than signaling a softening on that position as Visser suggests). As usual, there are conflicting stories and murky details. Proceed with caution.]

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