Iran’s strategy to assimilate Iraq

Editor’s note:  By reading this article about Iran’s desire and efforts to co-opt or to usurp, if you will, Iraq’s Shi’a community and Sistani’s primacy, I get the impression that Dr. Saremi, like the great majority of Middle East commentators, is  rehashing the orthodoxies of mainstream observations and analyses. The following is a list of problems with his essay “Iran’s strategy to assimilate Iraq revealed in battle for Shi’ites’ spiritual center in Najaf” :

1- Ayatollah Sistani was not even 50 years old when he left Iran and settled in Najaf, Iraq. He was not old or “senior” enough to have acquired the title of Grand Ayatollah at that age. At the same time, there were a dozen very senior ayatollahs and a few Grand Ayatollahs in Iran who were regarded as the Source of Emulation in the Shi’a world, and not just in Iran.

2- The importance of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq in Shi’a history is due to the fact that the greatest symbols of Shi’ism, Imam Ali’s clan, headed by Imam Hussein, were martyred there, and their shrines are the targets of annual pilgrimage to this day, even though hundreds of Shi’a pilgrims risk their lives and are routinely massacred  each year during these events. This is certainly not the “moderate” shi’a behavior that is associated with the Sistani style of theology.

3- Shi’a Islam is not, and has never been, a dormant, submissive, passive or compliant sect. The history attached to Najaf and Karbala attests to this fact. It was Saddam Hussein and his predecessors’ regimes, a minority Sunni ruling class, that had forced the majority Shi’a populations into submission for decades. Sistani, therefore, was forced into adopting very un-Shi’a like style of “moderate”, non-political, and rather submissive attitude in order to survive.

4- The populations of Shi’ites in Iraq and in Lebanon are a fraction of that in Iran. Even so, had the historical suppression of the Shi’a populations and their leaderships not taken place in Iraq and Lebanon, Najaf rather than Qum would have remained the hub of Shi’a theology, at least symbolically. The spirit of Shi’ism is intertwined historically with political activism and resistance against oppression. This trait has never been visible in Iraq, or demonstrated by the leadership in Najaf. In other words, Sistani could hardly be regarded as the “Source” of Shi’a theology, as Mr. Saremi maintains.

5- Saremi writes that at least 18 clerics and tribal chiefs who supported Sistani have been killed in 2012. While that may be true, it must also be said that several hundred ordinary Shi’a citizens and pilgrims have also been killed during the same period. Is he implying that the Iranian regime had something to do with that?

6- Finally, whoever replaces Sistani, whether an Iranian ayatollah or anyone else, Iran doesn’t have to struggle to dominate the politics of the Shi’a populations of the Middle East; it already has that dominion.

Kam Zarrabi,  Editor – US-Iran issues.


Iran’s Strategy to assimilate Iraq revealed in battle for Shiites spiritual Center in Najaf

by Dr. Fariborz Saremi


Pilgrims at the shrine of Imam Ali in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, Iraq. / AP

The overthrow of Saddam was supposed to herald in a new age of democracy and growth in Iraq. What has followed has been marked by chaos and destruction and inter-faction bloodshed.

Discreetly, however, away from the spotlight of the international press, another less obvious change has been going on: The Iranian Revolutionary system has been putting down roots in Najaf, the intellectual and spiritual center of the Shia faith. This move is now threatening the moderate religious establishment there.

In Najaf many young believers have sought religious and intellectual guidance, including the young Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of the revolution in Iran, and Seyyed Hassan Nassrallah, the current leader of Hizballah in Lebanon. Indeed, since the fall of Saddam in 2003, Najaf has undergone a renaissance. It has cemented its importance as the heart of the Shi’ite faith by increasingly focusing on theology than politics. As such, it has been playing a critical role in Iraq’s spiritual rebirth.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq.

The theological and intellectual authority in Najaf is centered on Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the cleric who is Al-Marjaa to the world’s 150 million Shi’ites. However, at the age of 83 he is expected to stand down soon. This has opened the way for intense theological rivalry to develop.

Sistani, although Iranian born, has never had close links to the regime in Teheran. In fact, he moved to Iraq before the Revolution in Iran and is opposed to the concept of ”Velayat-e-Faghih” or government by the jurisprudent, as established by Khomeini who succeeded in bringing 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran to an end. Sistani is the acknowledged leader of Iraq’s Shiites.

Khomeini has been dead since 1989 and his successor, Ali Khamenei, is now determined to establish hegemony over Najaf and Iraq’s Shiite majority. If he succeeds, this will radically alter the political and geo-strategic balance in the region and be of immense religious significance. Furthermore it would seriously threaten the Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

Iran would dearly like to replace Ayatollah Sistani with Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born prominent member of the ruling Iranian clerical hierarchy. He was a key figure in putting down the reformist and green movements in Iran in 2009. Furthermore, as a former chief of Iran’s judiciary, he gained notoriety for his brutal treatment of opponents to the regime. He is a close ally of Ayatollah Khamenei’s ultra conservative clique.

Khamenei’s strategy is to replace the older institutions and their moderate world view in Najaf with a more radically political form of Shiism, and Shahroudi is a key component of that strategy. The Teheran leadership could then ensure that the holy city of Qom, south of Teheran, would replace Najaf in Iraq as the center of religious faith for Shiite Muslims in the world.

Qom provided the legitimacy Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini needed for his brutal rule after the Iranian Revolution and thus established itself as one of the most important cities in the Muslim world.

Iraqi authorities have reported that at least 18 clerics and tribal chiefs who openly support Sistani have been assassinated in Iraq since 2011. On the other hand, Nouri Al Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, is a close friend of the regime in Teheran. Recently the Iranians have become worried that he may be deposed as Prime Minister in the wake of potential conflicts with Sunnis, rival Shiites and Kurds. As a consequence, Teheran has stepped up efforts both to bolster Maliki’s power and to ensure his compliance.

Nevertheless, Maliki has his concerns about Shahroudi succeeding Sistani, as Shahroudi is thought to be an ally of Mugtada-Al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who fought the Americans and Maliki himself.

The urgency of the situation has increased owing to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 and to the crisis engulfing Syria, where one of Teheran’s closest allies is President Bashar Assad.

The struggle over Iraq’s spiritual leadership, is as political a strategy as it is a religious one. Iran is trying to gain dominion over Iraq because it covets Iraq’s vast energy resources and more importantly because it is seeking to expand its influence across the Persian Gulf region, particularly Saudi Arabia, and westwards through Iraq into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Dr Fariborz Saremi is a strategic analyst based in Hamburg/Germany and a regular contributor for World, and Defense&Foreign Affairs.

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