As Iran and Iraq simmer, giants of Shiite world vie for influence

Why We Wrote This

The separation of religion and state is deeply dividing the Shiite world. On one side is the supreme leader of Iran, a theocracy. On the other, a grand ayatollah in Iraq. The tensions echo events on the ground.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, leads Friday prayers at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 17, 2020. Striking a defiant tone in his first Friday sermon in Tehran in eight years, he called President Donald Trump a "clown" who only pretends to support the Iranian people.

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Months of anti-government protests in Iraq have rejuvenated the theological dispute between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran and their rival views about the role clerics should play in politics. At stake is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That's in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. In recent months, his Friday prayer sermons have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.

But limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role it played against the Islamic State in Iraq.

“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “They believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”

United briefly in their mourning over the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, two rival titans of the Shiite Muslim world both paid their respects.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive top religious authority in Iraq, sent his son to greet the funeral procession as it filled the shrine city of Najaf with mourners.

And he sent his condolences to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his longtime rival for influence over the Shiite world.

But when Ayatollah Khamenei called for “severe revenge” against the United States, Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on all parties “to behave with self-restraint.”

The divergent responses encapsulate one facet of a broader theological contest – newly rejuvenated by months of anti-government protests in Iraq – between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran, and their two very different worldviews about the role that Shiite clerics should play in politics and daily life.

At stake, analysts note, is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites. And as Iraq’s protests have unfolded since Oct. 1, the pressure points between these two tectonic plates of Shiite politics are being exposed and redefined like never before.

Ayatollah Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That stands in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, called velayat-e faqih, which is led by Ayatollah Khamenei and has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“He supports our desires,” says Ali, a young Iraqi in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani leads a powerful Islamic seminary. The majority of Iraqis, says Ali, sitting in a protest tent hung with three posters of Ayatollah Sistani that outline his views, “are waiting for [his] call.”

To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. His authority has been on display during months of Friday prayer sermons, where his words have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown that has taken some 460 lives – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.

A liberal political Shiism

In the recent sermons “we have seen more liberal, political Shiism being spelled out than in the hundred years before,” says an Iraqi government analyst, a native of Najaf who asked not to be further identified.

“If we are to mention a single factor that prevented a totally bloody crackdown against the protests, it would be [Ayatollah Sistani’s] Friday sermons,” says the analyst. “And by doing so, he has put a limit on the Iranian approach. He stopped Iraqis taking Iranian advice.”

By contrast, in addition to their core demands for political change, Iraqi protesters have burned portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei, sacked Iranian consulates, and attacked Iran-backed Shiite parties and militia groups in their anger over Iran’s extensive influence.

“We are seeing these two schools – at least the Iraqi, Sistani one – taking clearer shape, under pressure of these events,” says the analyst. “It seems that [Sistani] is shifting away even farther from velayat-e faqih into a different, yet-to-be-clearly-spelled-out Shi’i theory of governance, that is definitely more liberal, that does not see instructing people as one of the duties of an ayatollah.”

Yet in the religious-political construct of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge of the perpetual revolution and has final say in all affairs of state. As the personification of the faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei is meant to be the official representative of the infallible 12th Shiite saint, Imam Mahdi, who disappeared centuries ago.

“It is well-known – this is not a secret – Sistani is more on the side of tolerance and coexistence,” says Abbas Kadhim, head of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Posters honoring Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani adorn bullet-ridden blast walls at the site of the U.S. strike that killed him. Images of revered Shiite religious figures, including Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were also put up in tribute, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 16, 2020.

“Khamenei and the velayat-e faqih system is [based] more on the exclusive claim to authority,” says Mr. Kadhim, who is from Najaf. The Iranian system refers to Ayatollah Khamenei as the “guardian” of all Muslims, whether they believe they should follow him or not.

“The only reason they tolerate other voices outside Iran is because they don’t have authority over those,” says Mr. Kadhim. “So from Sistani’s perspective, if velayat-e faqih takes control of Iraq, there will be no Sistani, or there will be Sistani under house arrest. ... These guys in Najaf are fighting for their own very existence.”

Secular vs. clerical rule

The style of these towering rivals also could not be more different. Ayatollah Sistani has some 600 representatives across Iraq, and a global network beyond. He earned public reverence with careful, infrequent intervention that “helped Iraq a great deal to save the day every time the country was about to fall apart,” says Mr. Kadhim.

That respect has been enhanced, he says, by “not micromanaging the daily public life of Iraqis ... because he’s not like what you see in Iran, or a place like Saudi Arabia ... where there is a religious police mentality.”

In Iran, however, every public and social step is scrutinized and controlled by laws such as mandatory head-covering for women. Every aspect of politics is officially defined by devotion to velayat-e faqih, which was a marginal Shiite concept for centuries until it was put into practice four decades ago by the first leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Under Ayatollah Sistani’s leadership, the Najaf seminary “has successfully revived a traditional approach to Shia politics as a rival to velayat-e faqih,” writes Ali Mamouri, a former seminarian, in a September analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“In articulating his own version ... Sistani refers explicitly to velayat-e insan (state guardianship by the people), as opposed to velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist),” or clerical rule, writes Mr. Mamouri.

Protests in Iraq

As Iraq’s protests grew to become the most widespread since the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, there was an indirect back-and-forth dialogue between the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite schools.

When Ayatollah Khamenei instructed “those who love Iraq” to stamp out insecurity, for example, Ayatollah Sistani declared his stance against a violent crackdown. When Ayatollah Khamenei called the Iraqi protests a foreign-backed “sedition” – as Iranian officials label any anti-government protests in their own country – Ayatollah Sistani backed the protesters’ call for change and told the government to “recalculate” its decision not to step down.

And clearly irritated by Iran’s continuing intrusions, Ayatollah Sistani in December called for the new government to be formed “without foreign interference.”

“With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world,” wrote Mr. Mamouri for the Al-Monitor website in April 2018.

“With Sistani pushing 90 and facing persistent rumors of ill health, Khamenei and his allies see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take over Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world,” he wrote. “Its most immediate impact will be felt on Iraq’s capacity to continue charting its own path in the shadow of the Islamic theocracy next door.”

Boosting that capacity for Iraq has been an uphill battle for Ayatollah Sistani, despite his vast authority.

“Let’s face it: The style of the Iranian leadership is the style of a state, not a religion or a religious leadership,” says Mr. Kadhim of the Atlantic Council, noting that states have a monopoly over violence, as does the faqih in Iran.

Ayatollah Sistani, by contrast, “does not have a claim of monopoly, or even a shared responsibility or right to use violence,” says Mr. Kadhim. “He is an absolutely non-violent man. He doesn’t believe in coercion.”

Restraint and respect

In addition, Ayatollah Sistani has refused to meet “hard-liners,” such as figures close to Ayatollah Khamenei, including the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

His attempts to integrate Iraq’s Iran-backed Shiite militias into the state military – against Ayatollah Khamenei’s express wishes – “have limited Iranian influence,” writes Mr. Mamouri for the Washington Institute.

Mr. Sistani has also demonstrated restraint in another way, by choosing not to turn Iraq into a clerical-run system like Iran.

“Sistani could turn Iraq into velayat-e faqih not tomorrow, but this evening, if he wants,” adds Mr. Kadhim. “Yet he doesn’t, and that is an important distinction. Sistani’s lack of inclination to assume a lot of power ... deserves a lot of respect.”

It’s respect he also gets from Iran, despite the dispute.

“Khamenei respects Sistani very much. He also respects the fatwas of Sistani, even if they are against him,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “I know lots of Khamenei’s followers. They have very firm instructions not to talk [negatively] about Sistani in any way.”

But for Ayatollah Sistani, limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role that Tehran played in 2014 to halt the Islamic State’s lightning advance, and in supporting Iraq’s Shiite militias.

“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran, therefore their beliefs oblige them to work for Iran,” says Mr. Hashemi. “They don’t believe in Iran as a geography or a neighbor, they believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”

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