The Iran factor
There has been a great deal of speculation about possible Iranian connections to the Shiite resistance to US occupation in Iraq.
The connection is not straightforward. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf is originally from a town near Mashhad in eastern Iran, but has been in Iraq since 1952, much longer than Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in California. Sistani rejects the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-i faqih), Khomeini’s theory that the Shiite clerics should rule politically. As such, Sistani is actually a dire threat to the central ideology of the Khomeinist state in Iran, and some of the reformists in Iran have announced themselves followers of his. He has an office in Qom that sends contributions of Iranians to him in Najaf, but these are the contributions of his Iranian followers. There is not a good reason for the Iranian hardliners to back Sistani, who is their rival and is playing Kerensky to their Lenin.
Muqtada al-Sadr, like his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, accepts the theory of the vilayat-i faqih or the guardianship of the jurisprudent. He is therefore in the line of Ayatollah Khomeini. But he has complained about Iranian influence on Shiism in Iraq and says that Iraq’s chief religious leadership must be Iraqi-born and bred. The Supreme Jurisprudent in Iran, Ali Khamenei, insists that his authority extends beyond Iran to all Shiite religious communities. But this claim is rejected by Muqtada, who says Khamenei’s authority pertains only to Iran, and that Iraq must have its own supreme jurisprudent (presumably ultimately Muqtada himself, though that would have to wait 20 years at least).
Muqtada went to Iran last June, but the message he got from Iranian leaders like Rafsanjani was that he should stop being so divisive and should cooperate more with the other Shiite leaders. There were Arabic press reports of Muqtada’s organization getting food aid from Iran last spring and summer, but his movement clearly is homegrown, with strong nativist overtones, and based in the poor urban quarters of the South.
So neither Sistani nor Muqtada can be considered a cat’s paw of Iran. It is not clearly in the interest of the Iranian hardliners to have either one emerge as a center of Shiite power that might rival Tehran. Sistani rejects the guardianship of the jurisprudent altogether, and Muqtada rejects Khamenei’s claims to be a sort of Shiite pope, reducing him to the bishop of Iran, and insisting on an autonomous Iraqi Shiite leadership.
What is going on in Iraq has mainly to do with Iraq, not with foreign forces. The foreign forces might put in money or attempt to influence events, but the events themselves are driven by indigenous issues and movements.