Questions grow over Iran's influence in Iraq
As Tariq al-Hashemi's death sentence heightens sectarian tensions in Iraq, Shiite Iran's role there is getting more attention, including a potential clerical succession struggle in Najaf.
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"Does Maliki do Iran's bidding? Sometimes. But he also does America's bidding, he has good relations with the United States," says Joost Hiltermann, Mideast and North Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group (ICG).Skip to next paragraph
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"The Iranians cannot impose anything, unless it's a huge thing for them and they can use threats and intimidation and blackmail, but I haven't seen that," says Mr. Hiltermann.
"It's a matter of the Iranians indicating their wishes and running up against internal Iraqi divisions ... plus there is always the [Iraqi] excuse, 'Well, but the Americans keep us from doing it,'" says Hiltermann.
“Iraqis are juggling, under pressure from both sides. They tell the Americans the same thing, ‘We can't do this because of the Iranians,’” Hiltermann adds. "Neither side is in control, the Iraqis are not in control either, they are weak and under pressure. But they can at least play one out against the other ... which they've been doing all along."
Controversy over Iran relations are especially pronounced in Iraq's Shiite center of learning at Najaf, where the aging and revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has ruled the religious establishment in the "quietist" tradition of generally steering clear of politics.
Mr. Sistani has frequently criticized the authoritarian bent of Maliki's tenure, prompting some members of the premier's Dawa party last year to encourage Iran's former judiciary chief Mr. Shahroudi to set up an office in Najaf, as a possible successor to Sistani.
From the start, difficulties plagued the office of Shahroudi – who is especially close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and sits on Iran's Guardian Council – as concern grew that the cleric would attempt to import Iran's brand of absolute clerical rule called velayat-e faqih. Sistani made clear he would not meet with Shahroudi, and the snub prompted Shahroudi to cancel plans to visit last fall.
Pro-Maliki officials and clerics denied any attempt to carry out an "Iran project" in Najaf. But speculation grew further in April, when Maliki traveled to Tehran and, among many Iranian officials, also met Shahroudi – the only meeting of the trip that was quietly left off the Iraqi leader's official website.
Maliki's trip was "a turning point in the Iran-Iraq relations and a sign of increased cooperation ... in the forthcoming months [that] will have significant impacts on the region's power equations," wrote Iranian analyst Kayhan Barzegar in the E'temad newspaper.