Iran’s Iraq strategy revealed in battle for Shi’ites’ spiritual center in Najaf

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By Fariborz Saremi

It was hoped the overthrow of Saddam would herald a new age of democracy and growth in Iraq. Instead chaos, destruction and inter-faction bloodshed followed.

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

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

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 Nasrallah, the current leader of Hizbullah 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 more on theology than politics. As such, it has been playing a critical role in Iraq’s spiritual rebirth.

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 geostrategic 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.