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Will Iraqi Shiite Muslims Come Under Iranian Control?

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In Iraq, 60 percent of the population follows Shiite Islam. Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is the supreme Shiite religious authority or marja for Iraq. Iraqi and Iranian Shiites represent contrasting cultural legacies -- Arabic in Iraq and Persian in Iran -- but adherence to Shiite Islam does not bridge this and other distinctions. Iraqi Shiites and Iranian Shiites think differently today about the place of religion in politics.

Before the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, Muslim clerics in both countries held to a social doctrine called, typically, "quietism." Clerics were granted competence only in religious affairs. Apart from rare charismatic preachers or mystics who rose to political power, clerics throughout the Muslim lands were expected to advise the leaders -- usually military figures or hereditary rulers -- not to govern in their place.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced a new scheme, repudiating "quietism" in favor of "governance by the religious jurists." This theory, upon which the Iranian Islamic Republic was established, was innovative in Islamic history and even heretical. But it spread and mutated, attracting some Sunni Muslims as well as Shiites.

A few Iranian Shiite clerics and the overwhelming majority of their Iraqi counterparts rejected "governance by the religious jurists." Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, like most Iraqi Shiites, has preserved his loyalty to "quietism," declining to either approve or refuse the Iranian system. He has, instead, supported parliamentary democracy.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani directs the prestigious hawza or Shiite seminary at Najaf in Iraq. Since Al-Sistani is now 82, many observers wonder who might succeed him as Iraq's Shiite guide and mentor of the Najaf hawza. If Najaf comes under Iranian influence, Iraq's Shiites may succumb to the Khomeinist paradigm.

Such a warning has been delivered repeatedly by an Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayad Jamaluddin, a partisan of secularism, opponent of "governance by the religious jurists," and adversary of Iranian penetration of Iraq in general. In an interview with the Al-Arabiya television network on April 27, Jamaluddin described Najaf as a place that had been left with religious "generals," or teachers, but no "soldiers," or students, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The students had gone instead to Qom, the main hawza in Iran, where they were indoctrinated in Khomeinism. The Iraqi cleric accused Khomeini and his successor as the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, of long-standing ambitions to capture the hawza at Najaf, and asserted that Iranian control of Najaf is inevitable.

Jamaluddin restated this prediction in an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal, published on July 17 and titled "Political Islam and the Battle for Najaf." There he wrote,

"Sistani is an elderly man. Iran's government is eagerly awaiting his death, at which point it will try to put forward a Khomeinist candidate as his successor. Its most likely choice will be Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary. If he assumes the mantle of leadership in Najaf, Khomeini's work will be complete -- the old Shiite faith, with its institutions and its moderate outlook, will have been replaced by the new faith of Khomeinist political Shiism. This is dangerous not just for Shiites but for the entire world."

Full Iranian domination of Najaf would, indeed, most probably be disastrous for Iraqi Shiites and other countries in the region and internationally. But significant voices within Iraqi Shiite religious culture doubt it can take place. Haydar Al-Khoei, for example, is a London-based researcher and member of the distinguished Al-Khoei legacy of Iraqi Shia clerics. His grandfather, Grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Kadhim Al-Khoei (1899-1992), was the teacher and predecessor of Ayatollah Al-Sistani as Iraq's marja. Grand Ayatollah Al-Khoei was known for his opposition to "governance by the religious jurists." Haydar Al-Khoei's father, Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, was assassinated in Najaf in 2003, aged 40. Haydar Al-Khoei posted an essay titled "Why Iran-sponsored cleric can't become Iraq's next religious leader," on the Iraqi blog Niqash, which publishes in English, Arabic and Kurdish, on June 28. Al-Khoei agreed with Ayad Jamaluddin that by "sending Mahmoud Shahrudi, an Iraqi-born cleric who has held senior political roles in Iran for years, to Najaf, Iran would be in a prime position to have one of their men succeed Al-Sistani." But, Al-Khoei wrote, "influence on Shiite political parties in Iraq, and influence in the Iranian theocracy, does not translate to influence in the religious establishment in Najaf. ... As Iraqi government spokesperson Ali Al-Dabbagh put it, 'there will be a transition period for a few years after the leading cleric dies but there are set mechanisms in place [for choosing a successor] and anyone who attempts to fill this gap using financial and political power from outside Iraq will fail'... [C]lerical influence from Iran to Iraq is not a one-way phenomenon. High ranking Shiite Muslim clerics in Iraq, including Al-Sistani, run influential offices inside Iran and also pay stipends to students and run seminaries to educate clerics who do not subscribe to the Iranian model." Al-Khoei concluded, "given Najaf's strong historical tradition of keeping politics out of religion, this [Iranian] plan is unlikely to succeed. This strong tradition ... is unlikely to change dramatically just because of some politicking from across the border." Iraq has doubtless experienced a considerable increase in Iranian influence. But according to its Shiite traditionalists, the Shiite faithful are far from surrendering to Tehran's full dictation, and such an outcome is far from inevitable.