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.
(Page 2 of 3)
In public, the neighboring countries, who fought an eight-year war in the 1980s at a cost of nearly 400,000 dead, pledge friendship and respect.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Iran and Iraq have brotherly relations and no factor can divide the two nations," Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said last month. He said Iran and Iraq could help establish a "just order" in the world.
Maliki’s Dawa party has recently tried to distance itself from the choice of Shahroudi as its spiritual guide, saying that members are free to make their own religious choices.
Maliki himself, speaking on the eve of his current trip to Washington, said reasons for Iran to meddle in Iraq were dwindling: "If [Iran's] excuse was that the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil posed a threat to [Iranian] national security, then this danger is over now," he told the Wall Street Journal.
For Iran, however, the "brotherly relations" described by Ahmadinejad might include the elevation of Shahroudi, who was born in Iraq and who on paper appears to have the perfect pedigree. But he also carries lots of Iranian political baggage, and the concept of absolute clerical rule that he subscribes to is not widely accepted in Iraq.
"Ayatollah Khamenei has taken a number of decisions as an urgent preemptive plan to counter the prospective challenges to Iranian influence in Iraq" after the US withdrawal, reported the Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat late last month, quoting an "Iranian dissident."
Those steps include intensifying support for Maliki, helping to unify divided Shiite leaders and parties, and “most importantly appointing a senior Iranian Shiite cleric as the velayat-e-faqih for Iraq” that would create "an alternative Shiite religious authority" in Iraq.
The source – unnamed, and in a newspaper funded by one of Iran's top regional rivals, Saudi Arabia – further asserted that the Shahroudi decision "represents clear evidence that Khamenei is determinedly planning to intervene in a broad scale in Iraq."
Iraqi lawmakers say they are not so vulnerable to such Iranian influence. "Shahroudi is more acceptable to Iran, and I think not so acceptable to Iraqis," says Shiite parliamentarian Ali Shubbar, who spent 21 years in exile in Iran.
"Sistani as marja is very different, fundamentally, than Shahroudi," notes Mr. Shubbar. "The maraji in Najaf will not go far ... from Sistani's [quietist] school of thought ... when they choose a successor." While Sistani was born in Iran, he moved to Iraq before the 1979 revolution and was never part of Iran's regime.
Opposition to Shahroudi erupted on the eve of his office's opening in Najaf in October. Sistani refused to see Shahroudi and was reported to not support his candidacy for a clerical leadership position in Iraq.
Shahroudi was meant to come to Iraq himself, but the snub derailed the visit. Sistani's office "believes that the ascendance of Shahroudi is an Iranian [government] project" to weaken religious authority in Najaf, an "informed source" told the Shatt al-Arab news outlet.
A cleric close to Iran's supreme leader
Shahroudi was trained decades ago by revered Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who gave rare written confirmation of Shahroudi's clerical credentials. He then went to Tehran to serve the father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who appointed him coordinator of all Shiite powers outside Iran – especially those in Iraq.
Respect for Grand Ayatollah Sadr, who was tortured and executed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein's regime, still resonates among Iraqi Shiites and helped boost the political fortunes of his son-in-law, the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
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