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Najaf, Qom, Baghdad, Tehran

December 13, 2011

I have some (slightly disjointed) thoughts to share on a very interesting piece on the Christian Science Monitor site, “Iran’s bid for power in post-war Iraq.” It takes a step beyond pure politics and looks at what is going on in Najaf, the Shiite religious center.

Now, in conjunction with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s Dawa Party, Tehran is trying to move one of Iran’s heaviest-hitting clerics to Najaf.

Analysts say the bid to install Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – a former Iranian judiciary chief who is very close to Iran’s absolute ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – aims to undermine Mr. Sistani, blunt his criticism of Mr. Maliki’s government, and draw Iraq closer to Iran.

It’s interesting, if not surprising, to hear of the Da’wa Party working with Tehran to make inroads into Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is still the undisputed heavyweight chief cleric in Najaf and the most (religiously) influential Shiite cleric alive, has refused to meet with Maliki or any other member of the Iraqi political establishment for months now, stating that until the government ramps up its effectiveness in providing certain basic services to the people of Iraq, he will not see them. Sistani’s political quietism (contrasted in an extreme case with Iranian velayat-e faqih, or more moderately, with activist clerics like Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr), which keeps him from seeking too strong a hand in Iraqi politics, has the additional effect of helping to keep Iraqi politics from having too much of a hand in religious affairs, which must look to Maliki like a pile of untapped clout.

Sistani’s influence is immense, but Maliki is a canny politician, and it makes sense that he would be looking for a work-around. What’s more, while Sistani is the most powerful marja al’taqlid going, he has never been Maliki’s marja, so Maliki bears no personal religious allegiance to him. [1] (Maliki was previously said to be a follower of Fadlallah of Lebanon, who was born, raised, and trained in Najaf and was involved in the Da’wa party in its founding years under his colleague Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr).

I’m not, however, convinced that they are looking for someone to challenge Sistani’s primacy now so much as to erode his influence with an eye toward controlling his succession. My read on things is that Sistani has not been well, and even if he is not actually in ill health, he is in his 80s, making his succession an increasingly salient question. Sistani himself succeeded Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, who made it clear before his death that Sistani was his choice. [2]  Sistani has not been so clear, nor is there so obvious a choice as Sistani was when al-Khoei died. The most likely cleric at the moment to pick up Sistani’s sphere of influence is probably Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, another member of the Najaf hawza, well-respected and relatively quietist in the mold of al-Khoei and Sistani, but he is only a couple of years younger than Sistani and while he is very widely respected, it is not quite the level of universal respect commanded by Sistani, so it’s not hard to see why both Da’wa and Iran might see this as an opportunity to have a bigger say.

It is not insignificant that this is a story about Iran sending an influential cleric to set up shop in Najaf rather than Iran simply trying to draw Najaf’s support to Qom. Iran’s preference would be for Qom to be the undisputed heart of Shiite religious power, but Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian leadership clearly recognize that Najaf’s centrality in Shiite scholarship, held in check by the restrictions and repressions of the Saddam Hussein regime, is now very much a factor, and that in itself is something of a concession.

Also worth noting is that in addition to being close enough to Khamenei to have his name bandied about as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader and having studied under Iraq’s revered Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Shahroudi is also reportedly the cleric under whom Moqtada al-Sadr has been studying in Iran. It’s conceivable that the choice of Shahroudi to receive their ‘invitation’ might also be more attractive to Da’wa, in part, because of a side benefit to Sadr, without whom the Da’wa Party would not have been able to retain control of the Iraqi Parliament over their challengers. For all his still-questionable religious credentials and loss of the US occupation as raison d’être for his movement, Sadr has found himself with a noteworthy amount of political clout, and if he wanted his mentor in Najaf, it could well be in Da’wa’s best interests to support that.

As to this?:

Mr. Shahroudi is just one man, but as a marja – the highest rank of cleric in Shiite Islam, a “source of emulation” for followers – he’s among the elite few who might challenge Sistani for influence in Iraq and jeopardize American hopes to limit Iraq’s ties to Iran.

On one level, especially where religion is concerned, the idea of limiting Iraq’s ties to Iran is a joke: the back-and-forth between Najaf and Qom is constant, scholars regularly spend time studying in both cities, and there are already plenty of highly regarded scholars in Najaf with roots in Iran, Sistani among them. But the doubts expressed in the Monitor piece are well placed. There is definitely a rivalry between Najaf and Qom as the two centers of Shiite religious learning, and in Najaf at least, there is a strong strain of opposition to religious authority’s involvement in political affairs in general, and Iranian velayat-e faqih in particular, so while the ties between Iran and Iraq aren’t going anywhere, there are endemic factors already weighing against Iraqi submission to Iran. Never mind that Maliki and his Da’wa Party allies have their own ambitions driving them; some level of partnership with the Iranian regime might be perfectly palatable to them – and that certainly could be an uncomfortably comfortable level for American tastes – but their interests are unlikely to include being Iranian puppets.


[1] ‘Marja al’taqlid’ loosely means ‘worthy of emulation.’ In Shiite Islam, each individual chooses a cleric who has both attained the level of religious scholarship to be considered capable of making independent judgments on points of religion, and has indicated a willingness to take on followers. That person is their religious guide; they generally follow his positions on religious issues, and sometimes social and/or political issues as well.

[2] Side note: the al-Khoei Foundation still wields an enormous amount of clout and whoemever it backs in the succession fight will certainly get a boost.

  1. December 13, 2011 6:06 pm

    Thank you, Caitlin. My eye, too, was caught by that CSM piece, and I appreciate your opening it up for closer examination.

  2. Dave Foster permalink
    December 16, 2011 12:34 am

    Maliki is Iran’s guy. More specifically, he’s Iran’s Iraqi guy (aka Da’wa) whereas Sadr is the Shia clerics’ Iraqi guy. Iran has been “in” the Maliki government the whole time. It’s their neighborhood, they are getting a little breathing room in the Gulf w Saddam out of the picture thanks to us, Saudi on its toes because of Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. We’ve been the best thing to happen to Iran in decades, not that they’ve shown much gratitude. As long as Maliki is in, Iranian ties will only grow. The USG can wish this weren’t so; the embassy will remain out of the loop after the military is gone as they’d been when it was there. It’s far too challenging for the State Dept to know much of what is going on in Iraq. They are just hunkered down. The “endemic factors already weighing against Iraqi submission to Iran” are the factions opposed to Iran/Shia domination. Those guys, Ba’athist, Sunna, Kurds, are certainly weighing against submission. Maliki’s interest is keeping his perks, playing adult after all those decades in the wilderness and he gets to do that only by keeping Sadr as out of the picture as possible by placating him, keeping JAM off the terror rolls, etc. Like all politicians, he’s corrupt and out for himself. But he will not fend off Iranian domination in any sense other than playing enough ball w/other factions to keep it a Da’wa show.


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