Iran's bid for power in postwar Iraq
As Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki meets President Obama in Washington, Tehran is trying to broaden its influence in Iraq by installing a heavy-hitting cleric there.
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Iraqi officials have long dismissed that scenario as overblown. But an attempt by Tehran to install a top-ranking cleric in one of Iraq's holiest cities – thereby exercising far greater influence over Iraq's religious and political life – has prompted warnings of an "Iran project" to boldly increase leverage with its neighbor.
Iran has enjoyed sway in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion through large investments and charity work to help the country's majority Shiites, as well as by supporting Shiite militias to take on US forces on Iraqi soil.
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.
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.
It may not succeed. But the effort is a window into how Shiite Iran may try to exercise soft power in Iraq in years to come.
"I think that's just wishful thinking by Shahroudi, the Dawa Party, and the Islamic Republic [of Iran]," says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If such a thing happened, it would mean that he would be Khamenei's representative in Iraq.... That's the plan."
Both men are maraji. But they could not be more different. Sistani adheres to a "quietist" tradition that dabbles little in politics – although he frequently condemns the corruption and misrule of Maliki's government – and has far more followers.
In contrast, Shahroudi has few followers and would bring from Iran a firm belief in activist and supreme clerical rule known as velayat-e-faqih, as well as a brutal record against regime opponents that some say taints him.
"I believe they won't succeed, exactly because [Shahroudi] was labeled as the Islamic Republic's puppet for a long time," says Mr. Khalaji, who trained at Iran's Qom seminary for 14 years. "But they have lots of money, lots of influence, media, and propaganda, so they can pretend at least that he is a marja and he has lots of followers – but I don't think that description corresponds to reality."
'Clear evidence' of Iran intervening?
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Right-hand man to Iran's supreme leader
Ayatollah Shahroudi was born in Iraq but has long served in Iran's regime.
•Trained by revered Iraqi grand ayatollah
•Sent to Iran to serve father of 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini
• Appointed Khomeini's coordinator of Shiite powers outside Iran
•Named hard-liner chief of Iran's judiciary; crushed protests, closed 200 newspapers, prosecuted reformist lawmakers
•Chose Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, under whom political prisoners were abused and killed
•Appointed in 2011 to arbitrate between Iran's president, parliament