NAJAF, Iraq — There is no place outside Iran that has closer links to Tehran's ruling establishment than Iraq's holy Shiite city of Najaf, where the silence during Iran's post-election crisis says much about the deep complexities of their cross-border bonds.
"Simply put, the whole affair does not concern Najaf," said Sheik Ali al-Najafi, son of and spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bashir al-Najafi, one of the city's four top Shiite clerics. "We will not interfere in the internal affairs of a dear, next door neighbor."
The four _ who include Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani _ have remained quiet on the upheavals in Iran since the disputed presidential election June 12. The reasons have to do with both religion and politics.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, lived here in exile for 16 years. Najaf also is the world's oldest and foremost seat of Shiite learning, and the Imam Ali shrine attracts hundreds of thousands of Iranian visitors every year. Many of the city's Iraqi residents speak some Persian.
Imam Ali, Prophet Muhammad's cousin and founder of Shiite Islam, is buried in Najaf along with many of the leading Shiite figures through the centuries. A short distance away from his domed shrine lives al-Sistani, who came to Iraq more than 50 years ago but has retained Iranian citizenship.
Despite the deep ties between the clerical establishments in Najaf and Iran, there are important differences.
The Najaf strain of Shiite teaching emphasizes that top clerics should be background figures _ though influential _ on most political affairs.
They did not speak out even during the crackdowns on Shiites by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s. Nor have they spoken publicly about U.S. accusations that Iran has been aiding Shiite militias in Iraq as part of indirect pressure on American forces and the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad.
Iran's Islamic system, by contrast, bestows all main powers on the non-elected Shiite theocracy.
There had been expectations that the top Najaf clerics could break their traditions and publicly comment on the unrest _ appealing for calm or even coming to the defense of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, following the protests over claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election was rigged.
But any sign of interference in Iran's affairs by the Najaf clerics, particularly al-Sistani, could prove costly at a time when many Iraqis fear that Iran will try to broaden its influence in their country as the Americans reduce their military presence.
Many Iraqis, even Shiites, still look at Iran with suspicion and worry following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
"Based on Iran's substantial influence in Iraq, speaking out in favor of one faction over another would be risky and could invite increased Iranian meddling in Iraq," said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert from the Century Foundation in New York.
Such fears resonate in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.
"Iran weighs heavily on us here in Najaf," said a longtime al-Sistani aide. "Many ask al-Sistani to speak about Iran, but we are not responding," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Ordinary Iraqis in Najaf, however, and some of its mid-ranking clerics, don't find a need for such caution.
One of them, 33-year-old Montazir Saheb, said the hard-line approach by Iranian authorities to the election crisis would eventually deepen the country's international isolation. "If they persist, questions will be raised about the legitimacy of a political system that gives the clergy absolute power," he said.
Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a senior member of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the largest Shiite parties in Iraq, expressed strong support for Iran's ruling clerics in the dispute during a recent Friday sermon.
"There is a crisis there in the true sense of the word," al-Qubanji, a cleric who lived in Iran in exile during Saddam's 23-year rule, said this week. "The danger is that there are differences inside the leadership."
Another resident of the city, university lecturer Qassim Mohammed, spoke of the regional fallout if Iran's crisis continues. "Iran is a strong nation and has weight in the region," he said. "It will strike back if it feels that neighboring or Western nations are interfering in its affairs."
Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, was among the first heads of state to congratulate Ahmadinejad after the elections. The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, urged Iran to begin a "period of reconciliation with all countries" _ a clear reference to the United States and President Barack Obama's offer for dialogue.
Al-Sistani is in a particularly vulnerable position. He has more followers in Iran than any other cleric as well as links to some of the top clerics in Iran's holy city of Qom.
"There will be more aggressive policies in Iraq if they view Najaf and the Iraqi clergy as an active source of opposition to Khamenei," said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert from the RAND corporation.
Al-Sistani, however, may have other reasons for not making any public statements on Iran.
As an Iranian and the spiritual guide to the Shiite majority in an Arab nation, he might not want to be associated with Iran at a time when many Iraqis resent the influence of their Persian neighbor in their country.
Iran has gained considerable influence in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam's regime and the rise to power of Shiite parties Tehran supported for years while in exile.
"It will not help us to speak publicly about Iran," said Sheik al-Najafi. "We already have to fight the perception of us as Iranians on account of our faith."