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why iran-sponsored cleric can’t become iraq’s next religious leader

Hayder al-Khoei
Speculation has been rife about an alleged Iranian plan to have a Tehran-friendly cleric take over as the leading religious authority for Iraqi Shiites. Whether conspiracy theorists are right or not, it seems the…
28.06.2012  |  London
A Baghdad man holds up a picture of Iraqi religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
A Baghdad man holds up a picture of Iraqi religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Over the past nine months, there has been much speculation in the media over an alleged plot by Iran to install one of their high-ranking clerics in Iraq. The plan involves Iran sending a senior cleric to Najaf, south of Baghdad, and one of the centres of the Shiite Muslim world, to take control of the religious establishment in Najaf – and with it the future of Shiite Islam.

The plan seems simple enough. Iraq’s current Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, will be 83 in August and is believed to be nearing the end of his tenure as spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims across the globe, and particularly the Shiite Muslims of Iraq. Despite his good health, rumour has it that he is fragile and that Iran is waiting to pounce, following his death.

Speculation has centred on the Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, as al-Sistani’s possible replacement. Rumours over his imminent return to Najaf, the seat of religious authority in Iraq, increased when Shahroudi set up an office in Najaf last October. He also began distributing stipends to clerical students – a necessary first step to announcing ones presence in a seminary. A month later, his Iraq representative, Mahmoud al-Baghdadi, announced Shahroudi would be returning to Iraq “soon”

By sending Mahmoud Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric who has held senior political roles in Iran for years, to Najaf, Iran would be in a prime position to have one of their men succeed al-Sistani, thereby claiming the mantle of Shiite leadership in Iraq.

At first glance, it seems that Shahroudi is a natural choice. He is a Grand Ayatollah – that is, one of the highest ranking Shiite clerics – and a confidante of Iran’s leading religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He headed the Iranian judiciary for ten years and is a member of Iran’s Guardian Council, a body that vets all parliamentary legislation to ensure it’s consistent with Iran’s Constitution and Islamic law.

He is respected, connected and influential in Iraq too – he was born in Najaf and before he fled Saddam Hussein’s regime for exile in Iran, Shahroudi had a close relationship with politicians now governing in Baghdad. He also briefly headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) when it was an anti-Baath, opposition party.

His unique position, in between Iraqi and Iranian Shiite politics, made him an invaluable mediator during government formation talks after Iraq’s 2010 elections. The elections were so inconclusive that negotiations to form a government lasted for around nine months. The negotiations eventually led to the unification of the current, ruling Shiite-dominated bloc in the Iraqi parliament, headed by present Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Another event that occurred during the summer of 2010 raised Shahroudi’s profile in Iraqi politics further: the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, at 74.

Fadlallah, also born in Najaf, was Lebanon’s leading Shiite cleric and one of the founders of Iraqi PM al-Maliki\'s ruling Dawa party. As such, Fadlallah was the spiritual mentor of the Dawa Party.

Although the Dawa Party has insisted they have not – and will not – endorse an official replacement for Fadlallah, some members have since turned to Shahroudi as their personal religious leader.

After Fadlallah’s death, Shahroudi was not only the go-to man holding the Shiite bloc together in Iraq, he also became the spiritual leader for some of the politicians involved. As a result, if he returned to Iraq, Shahroudi would be able to wield an enormous amount of influence within the Dawa Party, regardless of whether or not he is their official spiritual leader.

However, his connections aside, it is important to bear in mind that influence on Shiite political parties in Iraq, and influence in the Iranian theocracy, does not translate to influence in the religious establishment in Najaf. Because this establishment prides itself on independence from political and financial sources of power, relying instead of a steady stream of revenue from its own followers and other financial endowments.

Shahroudi is a well-regarded scholar but his political position in Iran hinders, rather than helps, his prospects in Iraq. In fact, any political position a cleric holds actually has direct – and negative – implications on his religious credentials in Najaf. In Iran, religion and politics may be symbiotic. But in Iraq they do not go hand in hand.

The Shiite schools in Najaf, headed by al-Sistani have been practicing what is known as a tradition of quietism here for centuries: that is, a policy of religious leaders not interfering in political affairs. Clerics in Iraq do get involved in politics and the Grand Ayatollah does intervene in political affairs, but unlike in Iran, only on rare occasions.

Additionally, the process by which a successor to the religious movement is selected must be considered. As Iraqi government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, put it: “there will be a transition period for a few years after the leading cleric dies but there are set mechanisms in place [for choosing a successor] and anyone who attempts to fill this gap using financial and political power from outside Iraq will fail”.

Al-Dabbagh is referring to the gradual process of selection, involving other senior clerics in Najaf who will have a role in persuading the masses toward one, or several, clerics suitable to eventually take al-Sistani’s place. It will not be clear cut at first and it may take some years for one strong, leading cleric to emerge.

As political and financial independence is crucial, it seems unlikely that senior clerics in Najaf will persuade the masses to start following someone like Shahroudi, with such an overt political role in Iran.

But the likelihood of Shahroudi replacing al-Sistani does not just depend on theological differences between clerics in Iraq and Iran. It also depends on the attitude of the masses. By following al-Sistani, Shiite Muslims indicate their reluctance to tie their religious and spiritual identity to a modern political system.

At the peak of his power, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini could not change the minds of ordinary Shiite Muslims who continued to follow Najaf’s clerics. This was despite the fact that Iran’s Islamic revolution had a huge impact on the Islamist movements active in Iraq. Today, it is not uncommon for Shiite Islamists to be politically aligned with Iran, while simultaneously following one of the traditional clerics in Najaf for spiritual guidance.

Furthermore, clerical influence from Iran to Iraq is not a one-way phenomenon. High ranking Shiite Muslim clerics in Iraq, including al-Sistani, run influential offices inside Iran and also pay stipends to students and run seminaries to educate clerics who do not subscribe to the Iranian model.

Elements within the Iranian regime may well be looking for ways to extend their influence in Iraq. They may well be planning to send Shahroudi to Najaf. And the Dawa Party may very well welcome Shahroudi’s presence there, on account of their uneasy relationship with the clergy in Najaf and their political accommodation with Tehran.

However, given Najaf’s strong historical tradition of keeping politics out of religion, this plan is unlikely to succeed. This strong tradition - which has developed over a thousand years, and which dates back to the establishment of the Hawza, a Shiite Muslim centre of theological scholarship, in Najaf in the 11th century - is unlikely to change dramatically just because of some politicking from across the border.

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