The Dueling Ayatollahs – Khamenei, Sistani, and the Fight for the Soul of Shiite Islam
The protests that rocked Iran earlier this year barely affected how most countries engage with the world’s only Shiite theocracy.
But in neighboring Iraq, they have forced a much deeper debate that goes to the heart of the country’s political future — and that of the whole region.
With protesters’ demands ranging from lower egg prices to a transparent government, Iraqi Shiite politicians close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rushed to Tehran’s defense. The street demonstrations, they insisted, were but the latest failed “foreign plot” to destroy the Islamic Revolution of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and derail its regional ambitions.
“The Shiite tide is on the rise in the region and will continue to rise culturally and politically, leaving no chance for others,” Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a prominent leader of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, proclaimed in a Jan. 3 post on his Facebook page. “The current Saudi, American and Israeli obsession in Iran led to rebellion in some of the corners of the country.”
Vice President Nouri al-Maliki likewise echoed the Tehran line in a Jan. 3 statement denouncing the protesters as “Iran’s enemies trying to stir up confusion.”
“Iran won an overwhelming victory determined by its own people under the leadership of the late Imam Khomeini,” said Maliki, a former prime minister with close ties to Tehran. “The collaborators at home and Iran’s enemies abroad will fail.”
But the outpouring of sectarian solidarity was far from unanimous among Iraqi Shiites, who make up about 60% of the population. More than a few of them gleefully, if privately, delighted in seeing the big brother to the east get taken down a notch.
Officially, the country’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stayed out of the fray. But those close to the reclusive leader of the Islamic seminary in Najaf make no secret of their disdain for what they see as overbearing Iranian mullahs who claim to speak for all Shiites everywhere.
“What is happening in Iran is the result of injustice and the oppressive approach of some Iranian clerics in governing Iran,” a prominent Najaf cleric told Al-Monitor in a recent interview. “They abuse power for their interests and allocate the people’s wealth to empower their rule.”
At its core, the rivalry is rooted in an esoteric debate over a controversial bit of Shiite jurisprudence that calls for a “trustworthy jurist” to guide society until the return of an “infallible” descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who’s been in hiding — or “occultation” — for more than 1,000 years. That doctrine, known as velayat-e faqih, is the guiding principle behind the system of clerical rule that Iran adopted in 1979.
“We must pursue the righteous man,” Khomeini declared from his exile in Paris a few weeks before his triumphant return to Iran. “When a righteous man comes to power, he will create a righteous state.”
The theory underpins a strategy of religious revival centered around the supreme leader’s claim to “absolute guardianship” over the Muslim faithful. Yet its theological validity remains a matter of intense debate among clerics four decades after the fall of the shah, even inside Iran itself.
The “predominant model of [Shiite theology] was seriously challenged by Ayatollah Khomeini, since he directly and explicitly claimed both religious and political authority for jurists,” a prominent cleric in the Qom seminary told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world. 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.
The outcome of this clash between the two dominant figures of Shiite authority promises major consequences both for Iranian clerics’ continued control inside the country as well as their ability to wield influence over Shiites around the globe. But 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.
The real-world effect of the two clerics’ dueling philosophies was on full display late last year after Iraq’s Sunni-majority Kurds backed a referendum on independence from Shiite-dominated Baghdad. In an Oct. 10 meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s Khamenei denounced the independence referendum as a US-backed scheme to create a “new Israel” in the region. Days later, Iranian-backed militias joined Iraqi security forces to take back oil-rich Kirkuk and reassert Baghdad’s control over the region.
Sistani by contrast advocated a more diplomatic approach even as he staunchly opposed the break-up of Iraq. In a Sept. 29 Friday prayer speech, Sistani’s official spokesman, Ahmed al-Safi, called on the central government to “mind the constitutional rights of the Kurdish brothers in its decisions and steps.” Safi went on to invite the feuding parties to “avoid anything that harms national unity” in order to prevent the latest political crisis from spoiling the “strong relations” between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.
The two approaches have been competing in Iraq since 2003, when the US invasion ironically eliminated Iran’s main regional foe while simultaneously revitalizing a rival center of religious authority.
For centuries, the ancient city of Najaf in south-central Iraq has been the epicenter of Shiite theology. Home to the tomb of Caliph Ali, revered by Shiites the world over as Prophet Muhammad’s successor, the city of more than 1 million is considered the third-holiest in Shiite Islam, behind only Mecca and Medina.
After Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, however, many of the city’s clerics fled or were deported to the Persian holy city of Qom. In recent decades, Qom has thrived as Shiites the world over have flocked to attend its dozens of seminaries and experience Khomeini’s revolutionary ideals firsthand.
By the time of the US invasion in 2003, the number of Shiite clerics in Qom had grown to an estimated 40,000-50,000; in Najaf by contrast they had dwindled to just about 2,000, down from five times that number in the 1960s, before the Baathist take-over.
Following Saddam’s ouster and the subsequent establishment of a Shiite-majority government in Baghdad, however, Najaf once again began to outshine its Iranian rival. Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric who spent most of his life in Najaf, soon emerged from Saddam’s shadow to become one of the most powerful political figures in post-invasion Iraq.
Born in 1930 to a family that traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad, Sistani is the descendant of a long line of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty in the 17th century. Today the senior-most Shiite cleric in Iraq lives in an unassuming two-story house in an alley just off a main road to the Shrine of Imam Ali, where he continues to greet visitors who come to kiss his ring and pay their respects. The modest surroundings, however, belie his influence over millions of followers.
Even as Iraqi clerics have filled the void after the fall of Saddam’s largely secular regime, religious rule in next-door Iran has paradoxically come under increased pressure as Iranians revolt against the theocratic regime’s failure to improve their lives.
Since 1989, Iran has been led by the 78-year-old Khamenei, who took over after Khomeini’s death after serving as the country’s president for the previous eight years. As such he has ultimate authority over all branches of the government, as well as the military and the media.
Despite his political powers, however, Khamenei lacks Sistani’s religious credentials. The son of a poor Islamic scholar from the holy city of Mashhad, he studied for just a few years at the seminaries in Najaf and Qom before returning home to tend to his ailing father. Khamenei taught Islamic theology in Mashhad for several years before joining Khomeini’s fledgling revolutionary movement in Qom in 1962, and was repeatedly imprisoned by the shah’s security forces.
Since the fall of Saddam, Tehran has looked to increase its influence in Iraq to secure its western flank and help spread its influence in the region. With Najaf on the rise after Saddam’s removal, it wasn’t long before Sistani was openly clashing with the Shiite authorities next door and their ideology of clerical rule.
“Sistani’s concept of velayat-e faqih … implicitly rejects Khomeini’s conception of absolute rule of the supreme jurist as an official member of the state, running the day-to-day political affairs of his community,” University of California associate professor Babak Rahimi wrote in a 2007 US Institute of Peace report on Sistani’s impact on Iraq’s transition to democracy. “The authority of the [grand ayatollah], therefore, lies in the defense of Islam and the Muslim community, not in absolute power over all state affairs as manifested in its authoritarian form in Iran.”
Instead of Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state, Sistani champions the theory of a “civil state” espoused by his mentor, the late Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei. Where Khomeini, who spent 13 years in exile in Najaf, broke with tradition by preaching that “only a good society can create good believers” — a license for absolute clerical power in pursuit of a religious utopia — Khoei argued the opposite, insisting that “only good men can create a good society.”
With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world.
Following Khoei’s predilection for a noncoercive society still rooted in Islamic values, Sistani forbade clerics from engaging in politics and called on Shiites to get involved with the broader society and reject sectarianism.
“Sistani not only did not ask for an Islamic state but also made it clear on many occasions that he is looking for a civil state in Iraq; a state formed through a democratic process with a clear borderline between religious institutions and state institutions,” Jawad al-Khoei, Ayatollah Khoei’s grandson, told Al-Monitor.
That approach has sometimes been identified as a form of “secular Shiism.” And as its highest-ranking senior clerical advocate, Sistani offers an alternative approach to the Iranian model of a politicized clergy.
Nowhere has Najaf’s resistance to Iran’s global ambitions played a greater role than in post-invasion Iraq.
As American troops overran the country in March 2003, Khamenei hoped Iraqi Shiite clerics would condemn George W. Bush’s invasion and convince their followers to resist the US move against Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. His plea fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Sistani released an unprecedented political edict that marked the first volley in his fight to restore Najaf to its former glory. In early April 2003, the grand ayatollah called upon believers “not to hinder the forces of liberation, and help bring this war against the tyrant to a successful end for the Iraqi people,” according to an interview at the time with Iranian-born Middle East expert Amir Taheri. In a premonitory Wall Street Journal op-ed that foretold a “Shiite Schism” between Sistani and Khamenei, Taheri described the edict, a tad hyperbolically, as “the first pro-US fatwa in modern political Islam.”
More than five decades after establishing permanent residence in Najaf, Sistani has shed neither his thick Persian accent nor his Iranian nationality as he eschews the political spotlight. Over the past decade and a half, however, he has emerged, largely by happenstance, as a major force in shaping post-invasion Iraq.
“Religious scholars should distance themselves from positions of administrative and executive responsibility,” Sistani told the Washington Post back in June 2003, days before issuing a religious edict, or fatwa, pushing for national democratic elections instead of a US-imposed interim government. Over the course of the next decade, Sistani found himself drawn ever deeper into the political fray as the country descended into civil war.
With Iraq once again on the brink of disintegration as the so-called Islamic State (IS) conquered city after city in the summer of 2014, the Shiite leader made an urgent plea in favor of national unity. That put him on a collision course with Maliki, the beleaguered prime minister who had come to embody religious sectarianism.
“I see the need to speed up the selection of a new prime minister who has wide national acceptance,” Sistani wrote in a July letter to the leaders of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, a religious Shiite bloc.
The missive sealed Maliki’s fate, and by September he had been replaced by Haider al-Abadi. Since then, Sistani and Maliki have been locked in a bitter feud fueled by political grievances and theological squabbles.
Despite losing Ayatollah Khamenei’s support in the summer of 2014, Maliki retains close political connections to the clerical regime in Tehran. He spent years in exile in Iran and Syria starting in 1979 after Saddam’s security services found out he was a member of the outlawed Dawa Party.
Ideological ties also run deep: The roots of the party date to a 1950s revolt against secular Arab nationalism and socialism in favor of an Islamic state in Iraq. Dawa notably drew on the ideas of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, a proponent of “just dictatorship” whose works Khamenei himself has translated into the Persian language and endorsed as “a serious step toward the practical application of religion.”
With the advent of IS, those frictions have progressed from the political arena to the military battlefield. An eclectic assortment of several dozen Shiite militias marshalled to save the Iraqi republic from the extremist Sunni threat has since splintered into competing armed factions with sometimes conflicting loyalties to Khamenei and Sistani.
When the Shiite-dominated militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) first exploded on the Iraqi scene in the summer of 2014, they were widely embraced as the last line of defense against the IS onslaught. But the militias themselves have at time also threatened to tear the country apart.
Maliki, who was still prime minister at the time, issued a decree on June 13, 2014, right after the fall of Mosul establishing the parallel military force and cementing his own legacy as the “godfather” of the PMU, many of which trace their roots back to the resistance against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s.
Days later, Sistani in turn used his religious influence to issue a fatwa calling on able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against the terrorist group. Determined to avoid turning the anti-IS fight into the next sectarian proxy war after Syria, he deliberately targeted a domestic audience rather than encourage Shiites from other countries to come join the fight.
From the beginning, the disparate militias displayed conflicting loyalties to Sistani and, through Maliki, to the Iranian religious apparatus led by Khamenei himself. At its heart, the debate is rooted in rival strands of Shiite theology emanating from Najaf and Qom.
For Maliki, “having loyal Shia militias, rather than the shaky cross-ethnic makeup of the Iraqi army, seemed a much more reliable way to secure a tighter command and control structure,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded in an April 2017 study of the PMU and the future of Iraq.
Sistani by contrast never endorsed an exclusively Shiite force.
“The fatwa was in fact bereft of any communal exclusivity,” the Carnegie report says. “[I]t was an appeal to Iraqis as a national community [and] steered clear of invoking sectarianism by not mentioning Shiism.”
Officially, the PMU are under the supervision of Prime Minister Abadi. But its most influential figure is deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close Iranian ally who has worked with Tehran’s intelligence services for three decades. And while dozens of groups of various sizes now make up the PMU’s ranks, a core group of a half dozen or so formed the basis of Maliki’s anti-IS militia army back in 2014 — all of them with ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Sistani meanwhile is close to a different set of armed factions. While they have also earned a fierce reputation battling IS, the pro-Sistani factions have by and large avoided the sorts of exactions against Sunni populations that have tarnished some of their pro-Iranian counterparts. Also unlike pro-Khamenei militias, they have largely stayed out of the conflict in Syria.
The ideological differences between the PMU factions have also impacted their bottom line. As Khamenei’s favorites, the pro-Iran militias have received funding and equipment from Tehran while their counterparts have had to rely entirely on the cash-strapped central government in Baghdad. The commodore of Al-Abbas Combat Division, which is not linked to Iran, for example complained last November that his forces have yet to be officially included in the PMU organizational structure and still do not receive regular salaries, even though they have been fighting IS for more than three years. Sajad al-Rabihi, a cleric fighting in the militia’s ranks, told Al-Monitor that the division’s salaries have been cut off several times.
The pro-Khamenei militias’ outsized power was on full display last October, when they helped expel the Kurds from disputed parts of northern Iraq following their ill-fated independence referendum. Since helping to reclaim the oil-rich area from the Kurdistan Regional Government, the pro-Iranian militias have sought to capitalize on their newfound popularity as the guarantors of Iraq’s territorial integrity. Several have even shown a willingness to take orders from Baghdad — at least for now.
Soon after Abadi declared victory over IS in December, Sistani spokesman Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai called for integrating the “volunteers” — Sistani’s preferred term for the PMU fighters — “into the constitutional and legal framework that limits [the possession of] weapons to the state.” The goal was to prevent the militias from being “exploited for political objectives.” Several PMU factions responded by handing over their fighters and weapons to Abadi in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces.
The Asaib Ahl al-Haq PMU, for example, announced on Dec. 13 that its forces were now under the prime minister’s direct control despite a personal pledge of allegiance to Khamenei. The Badr Organization, the largest PMU faction, followed suit the following day, with military chief Hadi al-Amiri himself telling his fighters to follow the orders of the commander of the armed forces and withdraw from cities under their control.
All the PMU were formally included into the country’s security forces last month, but that’s no guarantee that the pro-Iranian militias’ influence will decrease as a result. Their political wings are keen to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections in May, but can’t as long as they are part of the security forces. By handing over their militias to the Iraqi government, PMU leaders are betting that they can run for elected office while retaining much of their influence over armed fighters.
In contrast with the pro-Sistani militias, many of the factions close to Khamenei are determined to remain free to participate in Iran’s proxy wars across the region. The Iranian leader himself, in a meeting with Abadi last October, urged Baghdad not to dissolve the PMU, saying doing so would only facilitate US imperialist designs on the region.
As the only Shiite organization outside of Iran to formally subscribe to Khomeini’s religious doctrine, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has for decades brushed off accusations that its true allegiance lies with Tehran. The linkages date back to 1982, when the fledgling movement dispatched Sayyid Abbas al-Moussawi to meet with Khomeini and seek his blessing and advice. To this day, party officials defiantly adorn their offices with portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei while declaiming their shared commitment to standing up to Israel.
“They imagine that they insult us when they call us the party of the velayat-e faqih,” Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah declared in 2008. “Absolutely not.”
But even as it proclaims its commitment to the foreign religious movement and its leaders, Hezbollah has always boasted of its broad authority to make independent decisions. The civil war in Syria has tested that assertion.
Reportedly at Tehran’s behest, the Lebanese militia intervened early on to prevent the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, sending thousands of its foot soldiers to fight and die next door. A January analysis by the Carnegie think tank counted a minimum of 1,213 Hezbollah combat fatalities — including 75 officers — since the first documented death on Sept. 30, 2012.
“Hezbollah is feeling trapped as a result of the Syrian conflict, and cannot end its involvement without direction from the Supreme Leader in Iran,” Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, argued back in 2015. “As long as Iran continues to see value in supporting the Assad regime militarily, Hezbollah will remain on the ground in Syria.”
The Lebanese militia may be the most powerful and best known of the groups helping to carry out Khamenei’s edicts, but it’s far from the only one. The Islamic Republic has sought to spread its religious authority over Shiite communities across the region ever since its establishment in 1979.
Inside Iran, Khamenei is known officially as the Guardian of the Muslims, or Wali amr Muslemeen. As such, it is his role to provide advice to Muslims, particularly Shiites, around the world. Today, that influence can be felt from Palestine to Pakistan.
“Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine are oppressed, and we protect oppressed people as much as we can,” Khamenei declared in 2015 following a meeting between Gulf leaders and then-US President Barack Obama. “Those people who bring suffering to Yemeni families during sacred months are even worse than the ancient pagans of Mecca.”
A number of militant leaders in turn have spent time in Qom looking for ideological and political support. Yemen’s Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, for example, forged ties with the Iranian regime during a stay in the holy city in the mid-1990s. Soon after returning home, he founded his Zaydi revivalist moment, Ansar Allah — now known simply as the Houthis.
Increasingly, the Iranian regime has presented itself as a bulwark against global Salafist indoctrination pushed by the US-backed Gulf monarchies over the past few decades. But it’s also true that the Sunnis see Shiite empowerment as a threat, fueling a cycle of violence in places such as Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Najafi leaders by contrast have been careful to avoid interfering in the political life of Shiite communities abroad. In a 2016 speech in Mecca, Sistani spokesman Hamed al-Khaffaf said the ayatollah “emphasizes the necessity of paying respect to state institutions and sees no other alternative for building a free, independent country. [He] believes in the integration of Shiites wherever they are in their countries and leave the decision of each country to its people.”
During a visit to Lebanon in 2004, for example, Sistani refused to have Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah welcome him at the airport. He is likewise picky about his meetings with Iranian officials, boycotting former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while getting along famously with Reformist Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
That balancing act has at times enabled Sistani to champion Shiites by assuaging sectarian tensions.
After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2006 accused Shiites the world over of being an Iranian fifth column, Sistani wrote him a letter insisting that the “loyalty of Shiites in Iraq and other countries is to their countries, not somewhere else.” He pointed to Bahrain as an example where the Shiite majority in 1970 voted in favor of independence under a Sunni ruling family rather than Iranian control.
And when disenfranchised Bahraini Shiites erupted in protest during the 2011 Arab Spring, Sistani called for dialogue and negotiations even as Khamenei lambasted the ruling Al Khalifa family. A senior cleric in Sistani’s office told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Bahrain’s ruling family invited the cleric at the beginning of the uprising to intermediate between them and the protesters. Sistani offered a proposal to improve Shiite representation in the government and King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa accepted it, the source said, but protest leaders rejected it under pressure from Iran, which insisted on getting rid of the Sunni royal family. Later, in a meeting with Shiite clerics from the Gulf states in 2015, Sistani called on them to interact positively with all parties in their home countries.
The Sunni Gulf states in turn have sensed an opportunity to build bridges with Sistani’s followers. There is now talk of opening a Saudi Consulate in Najaf and add direct flights to allow Saudi Arabia’s 2 million or so Shiites to visit the Shrine of Imam Ali.
“The more you engage with Iraqis, the less the Iranians will come,” one Saudi official told The Economist back in September. “Iraq belongs to the Arab world.”
Efforts to export the Shiite revolution aren’t only running into trouble abroad.
While Iran’s stumbling economy triggered the biggest anti-government protests in a decade earlier this year, protesters also shouted slogans such as “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hezbollah!” More and more Iranians are worried that Iran’s military adventures are bankrupting the country, as borne out by the latest polling by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll.
In a survey of 1,002 Iranians from Jan. 16 to Jan. 24, almost half — 41.8% — of respondents said the government should “spend less money in places like Syria and Iraq.” And almost a third — 32.6% — thought the current level of involvement in both countries was “not in Iran’s national interests,” while 61.2% disagreed. Likewise, 41.2% wanted Iran to stay out of the conflict in Yemen, versus 46.7% who thought Tehran should help the Houthis win.
With television bringing daily images of carnage across the region, many Iranians are growing weary of the deep human and financial cost of sectarian conflict. But the theocratic regime’s investments in cultural influence are also drawing skepticism.
When President Hassan Rouhani made public a draft budget request late last year, it came under fire for increasing funding for institutions tied to Iranian clerics by 10%. These include several religious organizations in Qom responsible for domestic Islamization and spreading Iran’s influence abroad.
An analysis of the 2018-19 budget proposal by Al-Monitor found at least seven institutions on track to get $634 million. A quarter-billion dollars is set aside for medical care, rental assistance and other services for religious seminary students in Qom, Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz and other cities. Meanwhile, the Islamic Development Organization, which is responsible for pro-revolution propaganda and spreading Islamic culture in society, is meant to get $117 million.
For years, Khamenei has relied on such payments to consolidate his hold on power. After the death of Khomeini, Khamenei, who lacked his predecessor’s religious bona fides, “co-opted the clerical establishment through hefty government stipends as well as other exclusive and profitable privileges,” former Qom seminary student Mehdi Khalaji wrote in a primer for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Perhaps no investment is as crucial to Iran’s ability to project influence abroad than the $83 million requested for Al-Mustafa International University in Qom. For the past decade, the school has trained, lodged and cared for more than 40,000 foreign students destined to become Shiite priests. The university, which falls under Khamenei’s ultimate authority, operates more than 100 seminaries, Islamic schools and religious centers in three dozen countries, from England to Afghanistan. In its January report on foreign fighters in Syria, Carnegie for example noted that Al-Mustafa “seems to be the real recruiting ground for Pakistani Shia fighters.”
“Export of revolution has always been one of the most important goals for the Islamic Republic,” the university’s vice president declared in February 2016. “Al-Mustafa plays a role in preparing the ground [to] attain this goal.”
Even as Iran exports its theological outlook around the world, however, it remains controversial even in Qom.
“Out of 15 high religious authorities in Qom, only one-third of them are on the side of [Khamenei’s religious doctrine] more or less,” Iranian dissident and former Qom Islamic theology professor Mohsen Kadivar told Al-Monitor. “Eighty percent of the Qom students attend classes of the religious authorities who are apolitical and do not support the velayat-e faqih.”
The heterodoxy hasn’t escaped the authorities’ notice. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a senior member of the Iranian Guardian Council, declared in a December 2017 interview with the Qom seminary’s magazine that the religious authorities in Qom should train their students to be more friendly and cooperative with the religious political establishment.
“The students of Qom religious seminary are increasingly keeping distance with the state, which causes concerns,” Yazdi said. “They think that the seminary should be independent from the state. The religious authorities and senior teachers must clarify to their students that cooperation with the state does not contradict [the seminaries’] independence.”
Things came to a head in early March when the authorities arrested a Shiite cleric after he delivered a lecture to his seminary students in Qom comparing Khamenei’s rule to that of the unaccountable pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The detention of Hussein Shirazi triggered protests across the region as his followers accused Tehran of being nothing more than a dictatorship masquerading as a theocracy.
Elected political leaders, meanwhile, are increasingly looking to the semi-democratic sources of legitimacy in the Iranian system as a check on conservative clerics’ power. In a Feb. 11 speech marking the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani notably called for a direct vote to end political gridlock within the country. Critics quickly pounced to denounce what they view as a thinly-veiled attempt to decrease Khamenei’s power.
“If we have differences on two issues, or the factions have differences, or they are fighting, bring the ballot box out and according to Article 59 of the constitution whatever the people have decided, implement that,” Rouhani said. “Our constitution has this capacity and we must act within the capacity of our constitution.”
Iran’s Reformist movement largely stayed out of the fray. In the past, however, its leaders have made no secret of their interest in the teachings coming out of Najaf.
“The rulings of Ayatollah Sistani are well-understood by the Reformists in Iran,” Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president of Iran for Women and Family Affairs told the journal New Perspectives Quarterly back in 2005 shortly after Shiites in Iraqi took back power. “There is a lot of debate on his thought, especially the way he is promoting tolerance.”
With the Iranian revolution’s theological underpinnings under fire both at home and abroad, Tehran has increasingly turned its attention toward Najaf. Sistani is now 87, and Khamenei is keen to seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have an ally sit atop the Shiite world’s most prestigious seminaries and help reinvigorate Iran’s global ambitions.
The campaign to replace Sistani has grown increasingly bitter over recent months, with a black-clad attacker attempting to rush his spokesman Karbalai during a Friday sermon in late January. The aborted assault was widely blamed on “deviant” Shiite groups. But Sistani is no stranger to efforts to undermine him. Ever since his elevation to the top of the Shiite clerical pyramid following the deaths of his mentor Khoei and other top Najafi clerics in the early 1990s, he has faced periodical efforts to undermine his authority.
Back in 1994, the imam in charge of Friday prayers in Tehran, Ahmad Jannati, attacked Sistani, calling him a British agent who did not have a good relationship with Khomeini during his yearslong exile in Najaf. And former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani revealed in his collection of daily memos that he and Khamenei would often talk about the rise of a religious authority outside of Iran and strategized about how to strengthen Qom’s position against Najaf.
Khamenei has long been thought to favor the candidacy of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a 69-year-old Shiite cleric who was born in Najaf to an Iranian family. Shahroudi currently chairs Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, a powerful advisory body to the supreme leader, after serving as chief justice for a decade.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 ironically eliminated Iran’s main regional foe while simultaneously revitalizing a rival center of religious authority.
In a sign of Najaf’s entrenched distrust of Iranian influence, Shahroudi found himself on the sidelines during a five-day visit to Iraq last September. Despite being one of the most prominent graduates of the Najaf seminary, Shahroudi was not able to secure a meeting with Sistani or any of the other three leading religious authorities there. Sources close to Sistani told Al-Monitor that Najafi clerics deliberately avoided him because they did not want to be accused of accepting Iran’s agenda to dominate Najaf.
Shahroudi issued a statement upon his return to Iran saying that his visit was not an official one but merely a religious trip “to the holy sites and shrines of holy imams.” He insisted, “What has been published in some media outlets about other objectives is unfounded.” Yet he met with Abadi and Najafi provincial officials during the same trip.
Sistani for his part has declined to endorse a successor, fueling the risk of a leadership vacuum after his death.
If Khamenei dies first, the new supreme leader may well be too preoccupied with establishing his position in Iran’s unstable political system to pay Najaf much attention. In addition, Shahroudi himself is a possible candidate to replace Khamenei, which would leave Iran without a clear front-runner in Najaf.
If Sistani dies first, however, Khamenei would have an opportunity to expand his influence in Iraq as a number of domestic candidates fight to claim his mantle, among them his son Mohammad Reza Sistani. Historically, the death of a great Shiite religious authority has been followed by a 5-to-10-year period during which candidates compete to establish a support base.
That would give Khamenei ample time to seek to expand his own influence in Najaf, but he faces several obstacles.
First, his paramount authority in Iran stems from his political stature in Tehran rather than his religious reputation in Qom. Three decades after taking power, the supreme leader still has to put up with insinuations that he is not a legitimate religious authority because he did not spend enough time studying in the seminary, training students or publishing theological works.
Khamenei’s disputed standing came into sharp relief earlier this year when someone leaked a 20-minute video clip from 1989 that showed the mid-ranking cleric was dismissive of his qualifications to take over from Khomeini. “Well, based on the constitution, I am not qualified for the job and from a religious point of view, many of you will not accept my words as those of a leader,” Khamenei is seen telling the assembled clerics of the Assembly of Experts. “What sort of leadership will this be?”
Second, he does not have many representatives in Najaf who could advocate for him and wield influence, according to Najafi sources. Shahroudi, for example, has only a small office and a few students there, while another Khamenei protege, Kamal al-Haidari, belongs to a Reformist school of Shiism that is unpopular among many Iraqis.
By contrast, Sistani has a network of more than 600 representatives throughout Iraq “who would serve as a bastion against Khamenei’s influence,” one of his representatives told Al-Monitor. Active students in the Najaf seminary would also play a role in promoting their teachers to replace Sistani.
Regardless of its outcome, the competition between Khamenei and Sistani is part of a much broader clash between two Shiite religious schools of thought that will not end with the death of either cleric.