Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.
Da`wa—the political movement to which both Maliki and Abadi belong—has always been fissiparous. And years of exile simply made it worse. Back in 2008, Iraqi-British scholar Sama Hadad published an excellent analysis of the impact of the separate exiles in a report on Arab dissident movements for AEI; you can download it here (Sama’s chapter begins on page 32), but the key section—with footnotes removed—is here:
In 1958, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with support from other young scholars, established the Islamic Da’wa Party, which, up until his execution, was the only Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Party. Al-Sadr was the key architect of the party and was its intellectual driving force. The party established most its leadership force from the educated middle class and Al-Sadr tried to instill within them the ideas he was developing. The Ba’athist government in Iraq, however, deemed membership in or association with the Islamic Da’wa Party to be a capital offense. Many Da’wa members fled Iraq, mainly to Iran.
For the thousands of Iraqis who had found sanctuary in Iran, the nostalgia for their homeland and their desire for an Islamic state mixed in with the sense of revolution that was still prevailing in Iran, attracted them to wilayat al-faqih[the philosophy of guardianship of clerical jurists espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini]. For some in the Da’wa Party this fascination did not last long. During the 1980s the Iranian government measured any group’s commitment to the revolution by their belief in wilayat al-faqih. The Revolutionary authorities censored or banned any group that challenged the concept of wilayat al-faqih. This placed Da’wa in a tight spot, unable to publicly exchange ideas with their members other than those that conformed to wilayat al-faqih.
Iranian authorities sensed growing disagreement among leading Da’wa members as to how pro- wilayat al-faqih they should be. Capitalizing on this disagreement, Iran sought to fragment the party and establish groups more loyal to wilayat al-faqih. The Da’wa party attempted to salvage the situation by not challenging wilayat al-faqih, but throwing out any members who publicly supported it.
The most prominent group to emerge from the fragmentation of the Da’wa party, under the guardianship of Iran, was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Led by Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, SCIRI fully embraced wilayat al-faqih.
Da’wa members fled Iranian repression and regrouped in London. The discord of the 1980s and 1990s, however, meant that Da’wa did not significantly extrapolate from Al-Sadr’s theories.
The most significant step taken was the publication in London of ‘Barnamajuna’ (Our Program). Barnamajuna emphasized the need for democracy, free markets, and abandoned the call for an Islamic Republic in Iraq, perhaps as a backlash from their negative experience in Tehran. There was a clear shift from the belief of the early 80s in the will of the faqih (scholar) over the people, similar to wilayat al-faqih, to the belief in the superiority of the will of the people.
A senior Da’wa Party political source stated at the time, “[al-Da’wa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public.” This marked a clear re-affirmation of Al-Sadr’s wilayat al-ummah [rule by the community].
A relevant point brought out further in the essay is that Da`wa’s intellectual development in the United Kingdom was more dynamic, but still restrained by the fact that the Iranian regime more or less held the majority of Da`wa activists hostage in Iran. Should Da`wa activists in London grow too vocal in proposing alternate interpretations of governance than espoused by Khomeini and his successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then Da`wa exiles in Iran might suffer. When I visited Iran for my second time in 1999, I met a number of Iraqi Shi‘ite exiles in the center of that country, and they had nothing good to say about the Iranian repression they suffered and the indignities Iran put upon their children.
Iraq’s liberation, however, provide an opportunity for the two main Da`wa communities to reunite; a renaissance in exegesis took place. Much of this was not to Iran’s liking. When it came to governing philosophy and religious interpretation, differences that might have existed between those who spent their exile in Iran versus those who lived those decades in Britain disappeared with time, Da`wa might split personalities, ambitions, or portions of the debate but to suggest that Abadi is enlightened while Maliki was not is simply inaccurate. Enlightenment is relative, but the two men likely now share many of the same interpretations.
Enter Iran: Iranians know the Iraqi Sh‘ites do not particularly embrace Khomeini’s viewpoints. That does not make Iraqi Shi‘ites into American clones or necessarily pro-Western; rather, it makes Iraqi Shi‘ites, well, Iraqi Shi‘ites. The Iranian government has responded by sponsoring militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites. These militias remain a major problem, alongside their opposites on the Sunni side: radical Islamists sponsored by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; and ethnic and sectarian chauvinist Baathists embraced by Jordan. Alas, empty calls for an inclusive government do nothing to address this basic problem, nor would forcing all factions under a big tent lead to anything other than infighting and paralysis. Iraqis don’t insist that Jesse Jackson and Dick Cheney share a desk, or Samantha Power and Pat Buchanan; that we do the equivalent to Iraqis is unfortunate.
Let us hope Abadi can rally Iraqis against ISIS but, to do that, he will have to defeat not only ISIS itself, but those who have given the group help and solace. Maliki saw the problem growing and begged the White House and visiting Senators like John McCain to understand how radicalized the Syrian opposition had become. To believe that Maliki and Abadi are respectively Satan and savior, or that they represent different Iraq’s or different philosophies is misguided. The two men are realists; it is the White House that too often is not.