Washington Doesn’t Understand Shiite Clerics in Iran or Iraq
U.S. officials who praise Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani while denouncing Iran’s supreme leader fail to grasp that the two clerical leaders have a shared interest in resisting outside threats.
On Jan. 17, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent Shiite leader in Iraq, was discharged from the hospital, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted three tweets—in English, Arabic, and Farsi—wishing him a speedy recovery and calling the ayatollah “a source of guidance and inspiration.”
The friendly approach toward Sistani was regarded as an attempt by Pompeo to portray U.S. support for the ayatollah, who the administration believes is countering Iranian influence in Iraq. This comes only weeks after Pompeo himself encouraged President Donald Trump to assassinate the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in an airstrike while the general was visiting Iraq.
It is no secret that Pompeo is a champion of exerting a maximum pressure strategy on what he calls “Khamenei’s kleptocracy,” in reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his different and conflicting attitudes toward the two ayatollahs are yet another miscalculation on the part of the U.S. government in the tumultuous Middle East.
Just a day after the killing of Suleimani, Sistani sent an unprecedented letter to Khamenei expressing his condolences to Iran’s leader. Sistani praised the extraordinary role that the martyr Suleimani played in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. The letter is the first of its kind sent by Sistani to Khamenei in decades.
The subject of the letter—expressing condolences to Khamenei over the death of Suleimani—is noteworthy. Sistani has rarely issued a letter over the death of a non-cleric. This raises the question of what was so unique about Suleimani that made Sistani send a public letter to Khamenei. The answer lies in their shared belief in the necessity of an orchestrated, transnational effort to combat threats from outsiders. The perceived threat for the two ayatollahs comes both from fanatical militant groups like the Islamic State and from foreign intervention in the region. In their eyes, both have exacerbated regional instability over the past decade.
To tackle the former threat, Sistani took striking and definitive action in June 2014. As the threat of Islamic State encroachment on Baghdad was heightening, he issued a fatwa of jihad, obligating all Iraqis who were able to fight the terrorists to join the Iraqi security forces and to defend their homeland. This was almost a century after Ayatollah Sayyid Kadhim al-Yazdi’s fatwa against British forces who invaded Iraq in 1914, the last time a Shiite leader issued such a political edict.
His fatwa, nonetheless, paved the way for the foundation of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. It was then that Suleimani and Iran’s Quds Force rushed to help Iraqis (Sunni, Shiite, and most notably Kurds) to organize the popular units in their fight against the Islamic State. Sistani’s goal was the protection of Iraq as the homeland of all Iraqis. Sistani seeks a sovereign and strong Iraqi state, which can safeguard the Shiite community but also Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, and Shabaks. Sistani recognized the “extraordinary” and “unforgettable” role Suleimani played in achieving this goal in his letter.
When it comes to foreign intervention, as a Shiite religious elite, Sistani cannot remain on the sidelines when Shiites in other countries, including Lebanon and Iran, are in danger. A case in point is when he liaised covertly with the United States to support a cease-fire during the 2006 war between the militant group and Israel.
Hamed al-Khaffaf, Sistani’s representative in Beirut and his son-in-law, revealed in an interview with one of us in August 2012 that at the time, following a request from Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Sistani sent a dispatch to U.S. President George W. Bush through an Iraqi courier, reminding him about the regional consequences of postponing a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. A couple of days later, despite previous objections, the United States voted in favor of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
His attitude toward Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy under the leadership of his fellow ayatollahs, is different. Although he is of Iranian descent, he has never publicly intervened in Iran’s domestic affairs. He never answered questions of his Iranian Shiite followers, the majority of his followers, whenever he was asked about domestic issues. On the contrary, he has frequently advised those Iranian elites who met with him to become united under the leadership of Khamenei.
There is no debate over the fact that religious authorities in Iraq and Iran hold different political views. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that when either clerical establishment is threatened by outsiders, their collective priority will be to maintain unity. Indeed, mainstream Shiite ayatollahs believe that they must avoid any attempt to weaken clerical authority. As Iran is ruled by ayatollahs, for Sistani, no matter if he belongs to a different school of thought, any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran is tantamount to casting aspersions on Shiite Islam.
Sistani’s letter makes clear that he was not, is not, and would never be an enemy of Iran, despite all the differences he may have with its leaders. And this is a blind spot for decision-makers in Washington.
Time and again, U.S. strategy toward the Shiite ayatollahs has proved to be ill-informed when it comes to their internal dynamics, priorities, and interests. This internal dynamic—the ayatollahs’ nonnegotiable support for Shiite clerical authority and its stature—is so important and an unvarying principle among them that it even prompted the stubborn Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to revisit his earlier positions.
Sadr’s rise coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, in his early 20s, he openly criticized the Najaf religious authority, referring to it as a “silent school”—hence passive toward political events taking place in its surroundings. Sadr wanted Sistani to act as a revolutionary leader; he might have wanted to see an Iraqi version of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Yet the seemingly quiet Shiite leader, or marja, had a different agenda. From his perspective, the priority was the future of the Shiite community and its clerical authority in such a volatile time and area. Sistani was looking forward to the chance for Shiites to gain power in a democratic Iraq, though expressing on several occasions his dismay with the attitude of the Shiite political elites in power.
This was not only Sistani’s worry; it was a matter of concern for all prominent Shiite leaders. In Iran, Khamenei had to weigh the costs and benefits of proceeding with harsh ideological rhetoric against the United States and exerting efforts to fight U.S. influence in Iraq against losing the opportunity for Shiites to ascend to power for the first time in Iraq’s modern history through the political process.
He chose both, by supporting the political process under the auspices of Sistani and by creating a parallel path, backing factions that sought to fight the coalition forces. Sadr’s group was among them. Sadr’s relations with Sistani deteriorated, just days after the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
On one occasion in April 2003, supporters of Sadr besieged the ayatollah, calling on him to leave Iraq. The origins of this tension go back to Sadr’s father, Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, another senior Iraqi cleric who used to be a vocal critic of Saddam and was assassinated in 1999. The elder Sadr vehemently criticized top clerics in Najaf, including Sistani, and believed that their quiescent approach in politics made Iraqi Shiites virtually leaderless in the face of the rampant excesses of Saddam’s regime. In the summer of 2004, U.S. forces besieged Sadr and a group of his supporters in the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.
The differences between the two men were put aside because of what Sistani saw as the interest of Shiites. This allowed him to play a central role in bringing this episode to an end, building on the organic leverage of being one of Shiite Islam’s highest religious authorities. Sistani’s moves were seconded by Khamenei, who sent him a message urging him to intervene. Iran was known to be the main backer of Sadr during that period, yet it was then that Sistani’s balancing role within the Shiite community came to the forefront of people’s attention.
Khamenei’s message to Sistani was delivered via phone and was an invitation to intervene and prevent the killing of a cleric like Sadr in the shrine of Imam Ali. The Iranian supreme leader feared the implications of Sadr’s killing on the one hand and the idea of a Shiite cleric losing his life in a fight against foreign troops at Ali’s shrine on the other. Khamenei’s phone message, which was transcribed by Sistani’s son, Mohammad Reza al-Sistani, read: “What is happening is very bad for Shiites. If the clerics in Iran and myself are not doing anything, it is out of respect to you, yet it is necessary that you send the Iraqi government a strong message.”
Khamenei added in his conversation: “If this group got killed, and Sayyid Muqtada’s blood was shed, the Iraqi people and the Shiites will say, ‘The clerics sat and watched those being killed. There should be a solution.’”
Sistani and Khamenei worked closely together, though remotely, to reach a cease-fire. According to Khaffaf, Sistani’s spokesman, Sistani drafted a four-point cease-fire initiative that was given to a representative of Khamenei in Najaf to hand to Sadr.
Sadr discovered that, silent or not, Sistani’s authority was capable of influencing major events and that he had legitimacy. To Iran, this has been clear ever since. Indeed, Sistani played a role in the 2014 political crisis over appointing a prime minister in Iraq. Iran wanted Nouri al-Maliki, but Sistani had a veto, so Tehran had to accept Sistani’s final say. He was, after all, the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, whose position should not be undermined by his Iranian colleagues. Sistani’s objection to Maliki resulted in the appointment of Haidar al-Abadi as Iraqi prime minister in September 2014.
The latest source of tension has been Iraqis’ rising sense of resentment toward Iran due to Iranian involvement in Iraq’s domestic affairs. Sistani raised the issue, long before the ongoing protests broke out in Iraq, when he met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last March. During the meeting, he further emphasized that “Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected” and asked for Iraq-Iran relations to be built based on the principle of good neighborliness. This has not changed even now, with Sistani affirming through his Friday prayers, following the U.S. and Iranian attacks on Iraqi territory in January, that no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.
For many Iraqis, Iran’s intervention in their country’s domestic politics is partly to be blamed for their destitution. The spillover of the fight between Iran and the United States into Iraq—as has been witnessed in the last couple of weeks—and the prospects of it being further exacerbated over the killing of Suleimani, is another factor that might exacerbate the negative image of Iran among Iraqi protesters in coming weeks and months.
Not surprisingly, Sistani has a solution: “A united, free, and strong Iraq.” The United States and Iran should follow his lead in implementing this proposition. A united Iraq, within which all citizens move beyond sectarian rhetoric and cultivate a unified national identity, can defeat all internal security threats without the direct intervention of foreign forces.
A free Iraq does not require U.S. and coalition soldiers on its land. A strong Iraq could act as an adept broker between Iran and the United States—and the broader Arab world—should there be any appetite for diplomacy and reconciliation.
It seems that the best person under whose guidance these aims could be achieved is Sistani—the man who, in the words of Suleimani, has extended his cloak in a paternal way by supporting all Iraqis since 2003.
If the U.S. government and Pompeo are sincere in their calls for a peaceful region, they should seize this unique opportunity and follow the advice of a “friend of their enemy.”
Mohammad R. Kalantari is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Islamic and West Asian Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London. His research focuses on political networks, doctrines, and elite ideologies in the region. Twitter: @mrkalantari