Shiite Muslim pilgrims walk in front of posters of (R to L) Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group Hasan Nasrallah, in Najaf, Iraq, Oct 12, 2019. (AFP)

By Track Persia

July 10, 2020

Some observers think that the differences between ideological concepts of Iraq’s Shiite clerics and the Iranian model based on  Khomeini version of the rule of clerics are exaggerated and that the clerical class is on its way to completely fall into the Iranian sphere of influence.[1] On the hand, there is another narrative which argues that Shiite clerics in Iraq acted as a buffer against Iran’s tendency to impose more influence on Iraqi Shia.[2]

The senior clerics in Najaf are commonly perceived they do not follow the Iranian model which is based on the Shi’i doctrine of wilayat al-faqih , (the right of a mujtahid to rule).[3]This doctrine institutionalises the position of a leading Shi’i faqih[4] and transfers political leadership to him. It was developed by Iran’s former supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, during his fourteen-year exile in Najaf, 1965-78. Khomeini argued that all the powers of infallible Imams, including that of political leadership, should be transferred to a faqih who is capable of deriving legal rules from their sources and has the credentials and willingness to rule the Islamic state.[5]

After the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Khomeini’s version of wilayat al-faqih was enshrined in the Iranian constitution. Inside Iran, Khamenei is officially known as the Guardian of the Muslims, or wali amr muslemeen, which means he is the official representative of the infallible twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, who disappeared centuries ago. Khamenei regards himself the spiritual leader for all Muslims, whether they believe they should follow him or not.

Most leading Shi’i clerics in Najaf and Qum do not adopt this approach into politics they overtly maintain that they are committed to the limited mandate of a jurist. Among these clerics was Khoei, a long-time leader of Najaf’s hawza and Sistani’s mentor. Khoei argued that there was no legal evidence supporting the principle of the general mandate.[6]

Proponents of the Shiite clergy say that the latter do not seek to establish a clerical state, instead, they are looking for creating a civil state in Iraq grounding their argument on their actions after the invasion of Iraq in which they made clear on many occasions. They argue that the senior clerics, in particular, the most leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is instead looking to establish a civil state in Iraq; a state formed through a democratic process with a clear borderline between religious institutions and state institutions, offering a form of “secular Shi’ism” as an alternative approach to the Iranian model of a politicized clergy.[7]

However, Sistani has not spoken publicly about his position on the relationship between Islam and state, though he did express his idea vaguely on one occasion.[8] Additionally, Sistani’s actions after the invasion indicate that the ayatollah does not believe in separating religion from the state.  However, both Sistani and the Iranian regime, in particular Khamenei, seemed they agree on empowering the Shia in Iraq, although they differ on what type of the Shia are to be backed. Sistani might be concerned about Iran’s sponsorship of militia proxies in Iraq because they are weakening Iraqi state which the Shii clergy’s independence and survivability are increasingly tied to.

The Iranian regime sees Iraq as part of a broader regional context of competition with its international and regional rivals.  This comes as this regime had a bitter experience with Iraq embodied in one of the longest war in modern history. Therefore, the collapse of the former Iraqi state under president Saddam Hussein was a unique opportunity for the regime to fill the power vacuum and reshape Iraq’s political order to maintain its dominance by strengthening its allies within Iraq.

The theocracy has become more assertive in exerting its influence in Iraq, following the US withdrawal from the country in late 2011, especially with the growing threat posed by the uprising in Syria against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Asad and the renewed uprising of Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s western cities over the sectarian practices of former PM Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014),

To boost its influence further in Iraq, the Iranian regime broadened its common interests with al-Maliki. One of the mechanisms the Iranians used to reach their goals was working on strengthening the alliance between Maliki and their militia proxies in Iraq and encouraging them to form a military force similar to Iran’s military elite IRGC in Iraq. the Iranians had contemplated this strategy even before the extremist group of Islamic State (IS) controlled the northern city of Mosul other Sunni cities in June 2014. The jihad fatwa of Sistani against the extremist group was a unique opportunity for the Iranian regime to increase its leverage in Iraq by forming a copy of Iran IRGC. Thousand of Shiite men heeded  Sistani’s call and formed the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which were also joined by Iran’s paramilitary proxies in Iraq.

Despite their disagreements, Sistani and Khamenei seemed to have compromises because of the common interests. This is reflected in Sistani’s avoidance of commenting on Iranian political affairs, although being himself an Iranian national, also in his role in Iran that is confined to the management of his religious institutions and charities, despite Sistani is one of the most religiously emulated clerics in Iran which Khamenei considers his main domain. While in Iraq, Khamenei seems to have accepted Sistani’s role as the orchestrator of Iraq’s public space, while at the same time avoiding showing opposition to Iran’s interference in the Iraqi affairs.

Nonetheless, there is still a covert rivalry between Najaf and Qom. This is reflected in the efforts of the Iranian regime in opening several offices in Iraq’s Shi’i holy cities and its extensive use of financial resources to gain influence and prestige. Iran has also used Iraq’s Shi’i public space through investments in real estate, commercial, hotel, tourism and many more fields.

In the meantime, Sistani has been strengthening his hawzat by building new schools and learning centres to attract students from all over the Shi’i world. Sistani’s efforts seem to be improving the quality of these Shi’i religious learning centres to compete with other learning centres abroad, especially in Qom.

[1] Khalaji, p.33.

[2] Hasan, H. (2017). Sistani, Iran and the Future of Shii Clerical Authority in Iraq. Crown Center for Middle East Studies, p.1.

[3] Velayat-e faqih in Persian.

[4] A cleric who is an expert in the Islamic jurisprudence.

[5] For further details, see Kadivar M (2000). Naẓarīyāt al-ḥukm fī al-fiqh al-Shī‘ī : buḥūth fī wilāyat al-faqīh, Beirut, Dar al-Jadid.



[8] Ehrenberg, J., 2010. The Iraq papers. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.320.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.