Al-Khoei: Ayatollah Sistani is Iraq’s Bulwark against Iran: Wikileaks

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.

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6 Responses

  1. The reality on the ground in Iraq is also different. The local shia population of Iraq knows that it is alien to the Sunni Areas around Baghdad and north of Baghdad [half of iraq] Ordinary shia Iraqis of the south, who make up 90% of all shias in iraq have always been expressing a secession of southern iraq from the rest of Iraq. They do not even want Baghdad, and are willing to give it away to the so called “Sunni” powers [king abdullah of jordan]. All that these shia locals of Iraq care about is to become an independent rich emirate as Kuwait, Qatar, or any other Gulf country, and develop their lands.

    They are willing to exchange the small Sunni population around Basra and Dhi Qar for the small shia populations around Kirkuk, Balad and Tal Afar.

    The gulf between Sunni Iraq and Shia Iraq is deep now.

    Until when will Iraq continue to live as a tripartite state?

    Iran can only establish a shia religious base in the south or in Baghdad. Its not all rosy for Iran.

  2. The foundation for both Iranian and Iraqi interets is the same–design development so the country will continue to prosper long after the hydrocarbon resouces are drilled away. This is the proper task of responsible leadership, especially of leadership supposedly influenced by a religion that stipulates care be given to the masses–a pan-Islamic tenet. More enlightened Islamic politicians like Erdogan understand the potential power of a Turkey-Iraq-Iran bloc resembling previous Persian Empires. and the broader Turkic possibilities that would include Armenia and Azerbaijan. I think Russia is encouraging the formation of such a bloc as it would isolate the NATO beachhead in Georgia.

    What we ought to be predicting are the routes the US Empire will use in its retreat and how long NATO will continue in its current configuration.

  3. [fixed my typo]

    Allahumma salli `ala Muhammad wa aale Muhammad! Thank you for keying me into the potential for a Hakim successorship to Ayatullah Sistani and for allaying my fears about a system of scholarship whose members this side of the ocean have appeared so often to rhetorically kiss Ahmadinejad’s proverbial feet. May the hawzah at Najaf be blessed with strength, numbers of students and teachers, and proper guidance, inshallah.

    Wallah, this is some of the best news I have seen all week. Did you know that one of my worst fears over the past decade has been the (impending?) assassination of Ayatullah Sistani? Knowing that the line of succession is in good hands settles some of those fears. That’s not to say, of course, that I would start bawling my eyes out and demand a mini-vacation with other Shia Muslims in the area. I just won’t be so worried about the future, and I will know where to look for the next tawdih al masa’il.

    Thank you again so much.

  4. This was an interesting piece on Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s influence in Iraqi politics and his opinion on the concept of Guardianship of the Jurist. However, I think it is incorrect to state that he is against the concept. In fact all Shi‘a scholars are in favor of a guardianship… they simply differ over the extent of said guardianship. Ayatollah Sistani clearly is more inline with the limited guardianship over non-litigious affairs. The general guardianship, which is what we see in Iran, involves a guardianship over all aspects of public, social, religious, and political life. It is referred to as wilayat al-motlaqah.

    I can not stress this enough, it is misleading to make the claim that Sistani is 100% against an all encompassing guardianship. It is argued on his website ( that “… for general affairs to which social order is linked, wilayah of a Faqih (guardianship of a jurist) and enforcement of wilayah (guardianship) depend on certain conditions one of which is popularity of Faqih (the jurist) among majority of momeneen (believers).” Here he offers that there are certain conditions, all but one of which are unnamed. The one condition enumerated is “popularity of the jurist among the majority of believers.” This means that if all these conditions are met, then an all-encompassing guardianship can be instituted. Therefore, the discussion should not be about whether a particular scholar is in favor or not, but whether certain conditions are met to allow for such a guardianship. The probability of meeting all of the conditions is next to none, and as such the overwhelming majority of Shi‘a religious scholars are said to be “against the concept of an all-encompassing guardianship.” In fact, they are simply stating that it is improbable for the conditions to be met.

    Returning to the condition involving the popularity of the jurist among a majority of the people. This conditions allows us some room for a little speculation.

    1) Sistani is trying to play nice with Qom and Tehran, not wanting to offend the regime. Let’s not forget that though Sistani lives in Najaf, his real power center lies in Qom. It is from there that the zakat and khums (religious taxes) collected in his name are held and distributed. In other words, Sistani does not want to rock the boat and cause any unnecessary tensions between the Iranian regime and himself, or

    2) Sistani is a democrat… arguing that the choice of government should be up to the people of a given country. Therefore, if a majority want Guardianship of the Jurist then so be it, or

    3)By not listing the other conditions, Sistani is somehow implying that this democratic process of choosing the system of Guardianship of the Jurist must be met. It cannot be forced on a nation. In other words, he might be taking a veiled swipe at the Iranian regime knowing that a large portion of the Iranian people no longer want the system of the Guardianship of the Jurist. There is no need for him to list the other conditions if this one condition is not being met, and maybe he’s claiming that it’s not being met in the Iranian case.

    I don’t presume to speak for Ayatollah Sistani, but as a doctoral student writing my dissertation about Shi‘a political participation in the American setting, I can tell you that the position of any marja’ on the concept of the guardianship of the jurist is not as black and white as it is often claimed. Even some of the Shi‘a scholars residing in the United States make the mistake of offering such black and white over-simplifications, which has lead to divisions among the American Shi‘a community.

  5. Cyrus, you are right of course about the varying degrees of Guardianship. When I say Sistani opposes Wilayat al-Faqih, I am of course implying the “absolute” theory that Khomeini proclaimed in Najaf (or rather, picked up from Naraqi) and later solidified in Iran.

    I disagree however that his real base of power is in Qum. Sistani, or at least his representatives, oversees a billion dollar empire throughout the world, and Iran is only one country (albeit a big one) where khums is collected on his behalf. The fact that they (Najaf scholars) are apolitical gives them a financial and political independence that their Qum counterparts cannot enjoy and this is why they do not put all their eggs in one basket.

    Even if tomorrow the Iranian government decided to freeze Sistani’s assests in Iran, that will not be the end of his marji’iya, and although it will be a big blow to him and his followers in Iran, it will not effect his status in the Gulf, Europe, America and other parts of Asia.

    Also he does not go out of his way, putting it nicely, to please Iran. He very clearly snubbed Iran when he decided to travel to London for health reasons. Travelling to country which took part in the Iraq war instead of going to neighbouring Iran was a big statement and it has not been picked up by the MSM. He has not set foot inside Iran for decades and it is extremely unlikely he will ever go there again.

    Sistani opposes absolute guardianship because he, like many other prominent Shia scholars, believes there is no basis for this form of government from the quran or hadith. When it comes to these rulings, scholars are less inclined to be influenced by the masses (democracy) and rather focus of what they believe is the best Islamic judgement.

  6. Assaalmu `alaykum wa rahmatullah
    If I were to Google Naraqi to learn more, what other key terms would help me to narrow my search?

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