Hayder al-Khoei writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
The “cablegate” leaks have gone a long way in embarrassing governments all over the world, not least the Arab states in the Gulf who seem a little too excited in encouraging the US to attack Iran, and the State Department will have to continue their efforts in damage control. However, blushes aside, the leaks reveal that along with opposition to their nuclear status, regional isolation, tallying sanctions and growing internal dissidence, Iran has to carefully tread around another unwelcome voice that is standing in the way of their strategic ambitions in the Middle East. That voice being of the religious elite – the Marji’iyya – in Najaf.
In one of the leaked memos from the US Embassy in Baghdad, diplomats acknowledge that the 80 year-old Grand Ayatollah Sistani is Iran’s “greatest political roadblock” in Iraq. Sistani, who is living in a rented home in a narrow street in Najaf, is more of a bulwark against Iranian interests in Iraq than the military prowess of the Americans. Why? Simply because he does not believe in the system of governance in Iran that is the theological corner stone of both their constitution and zealous expansionist ideology.
Sistani is mentioned in 2 out of 4 leaked memos from the US embassy in Baghdad and his de facto status in Iraq as the most powerful man in the country will likely make him a recurring feature in the 15,000+ memos on Iraq that are to be gradually leaked to the public.
Sistani is by no means the only critic of the Guardianship of the Jurist (Wilayat al-Faqih) – in Najaf. His likely successor, Grand Ayatollah Hakim (a relative of the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) also fundamentally opposes the argument which allowed Khomeini to declare himself the head of state, and whose powers were passed on to Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei.
This awkward balance of religious power between the two ivory towers of Najaf and Qum will always influence the terms of the political relationship between Tehran and Baghdad. Although Iranian President Ahmadinejad has referred to Iraq as “a Shia base”, in what was an obvious swipe at Sunni Arab countries, it remains a base whose clerics have radically different opinions on how much power the clerics should be allowed to wield in politics.
The Iranians want to send a clear signal to regional Arab Sunni powers that Iraq is out of bounds to their political manoeuvrings and they play the sectarian card because they know these powers already regard Iraq’s Shia as a fifth column who are secretly loyal to Iran. The reality on the ground is very much different.
Najaf will always be a double-edged sword for the Iranians. On the one hand, Iran is able to extend their socio-economic links to Iraq through Najaf, the religious centre of Shia Islam. On the other hand, the rivalry between the Najaf and Qum schools will always remain a thorn for Iranian interests in Iraq as long as there are strong ideological opponents of Khomeini’s view on theocratic government.
Sistani rarely gets directly involved in politics, precisely because of his rejection the Guardianship of the Jurist, but in his last intervention he pushed the idea of on open-list system in the general elections to make politicians in Iraq more accountable to their constituents – much to the dismay of Iran. The first parliamentary elections were held on a closed list basis, in which voters voted for party lists but party leaders decided in back room negotiations who exactly would fill the seats. Sistani was conveying a well known desire of the Iraqi people to know which MPs they were placing in power. But the Iranians did not want an open list because they preferred a united Shia list, which would be able to win seats based more on its sectarian coloration and not because of the individual merit of candidates.
The 8 months of horse-trading that followed Iraq’s elections may have recently ended up favourable to Iran,as the next government is going to be Shia-dominated but that has more to do with the effect of democracy than it has with Iranian machinations . The process would have been much easier for Iran if it wasn’t for Sistani’s influence and intervention, and he will continue to push for an Iraqi agenda that will, in many occasions, be at odds with the wishes of the Iranian establishment.
Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies in London.