The Iranian Ayatollah trying to save Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 25 Sep 2020

Can Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani live up to the high expectations he has created in backing Iraq’s reform-minded prime minister?

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, July 24, 2014. REUTERS

“The parliamentary elections to be held next year are of paramount importance, and all necessary preparations should be made in order to give their results a high degree of credibility,” said Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq, from his seat in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf.  

“Therefore, it [the elections] should be carried out under a fair and equitable law away from the vested interests of some political factions and groups. In all circumstances, integrity and transparency should be considered in coordination with the ad hoc body and the UN mission,” Al-Sistani said, referring to the UN body in Iraq.

“The early elections are not a goal per se, but the right and peaceful track to end the current deadlock in the country as a result of an accumulation of political, economic, security and health crises,” Al-Sistani said in a statement released by his office after a meeting with UN Envoy to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert last week.

Al-Sistani’s extraordinary remarks came in direct backing of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who has been grappling with the country’s ruling political factions. These have been trying to block his reform plans, including for early parliamentary elections.

In August, Al-Kadhimi announced that parliamentary elections would be held in June, nearly a year before they had originally been scheduled to take place, provided that the Iraqi parliament passed a new election law and the logistics were ready for the voting.

He has promised that the elections will be fair and inclusive, a key demand in a country that has seen several elections held amid accusations of fraud and manipulation.  

Since mass protests erupted in Iraq in October last year against widespread corruption, popular demands for early elections have been mounting amid political manoeuvrings by the country’s entrenched ruling elite to torpedo such efforts.

During his 13 September meeting with the UN envoy, Al-Sistani also called on the government to probe cases of corruption in the country and for all weapons to be placed under state control. There should be a respect for state authority and armed groups should be prevented from creating their own “fiefdoms,” he declared.

In addition, Al-Sistani called for bringing to justice the culprits in violence against the protesters and “to work seriously to reveal all those who have committed criminal acts that have killed or wounded protesters and members of the security forces.”

Al-Kadhimi has pledged to introduce reforms to meet the demands of the protesters after months of demonstrations in the country’s largely Shia-dominated south. Former prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi resigned after Al-Sistani condemned the use of force against the protesters.

After he took office in May, Al-Kadhimi set up a special commission to identify those responsible for the violence during the demonstrations and decided to compensate the families of about 400 victims.

He also launched key changes to senior positions in governmental bodies, including the security and economic portfolios. He started a campaign to investigate major corruption cases and introduced new measures to control the country’s customs authorities, as millions of dollars have been being lost on untaxed imported goods.

Political infighting and corruption have been hampering Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to carry out the badly needed reforms, however, and Iraq’s economy has been collapsing under the double blow of sinking oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic.

As tensions between Iran and the United States persist, the ongoing political crisis and instability in Iraq is only getting worse. Iran’s political allies continue to cling to power, and pro-Iran militias step up their attacks on US interests in the country.  

As a result of his criticisms and with passionate warnings against delays in much-needed reforms growing louder, Al-Sistani’s latest intervention is, therefore, emerging as a kind of high-noon moment for Iraq.

Since the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Al-Sistani has dominated the leadership of the Shia Marjiya, the spiritual reference for Shias in Najaf, and turned the city into the centre of the faith’s political power in Iraq.

The Iranian-born cleric has been a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s troubled politics, serving as a stabiliser of the conflict-ridden country through his attempts to forge a common cause for all Iraqis.

Al-Sistani’s views have been critical in calming tensions as the country has faced crisis after crisis, beginning with civil strife following the US-led invasion, through the war on the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, and then the mass protests against the Shia political establishment.

Al-Sistani is believed to have been born in Mashhad, Iran, on 4 August 1930 of a father who was also a religious scholar. He moved to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq to study theology with prominent Shia clerics at the city’s seminary.

However, Al-Sistani remained opposed to the controversial theory of the Wilayat Al-Faqih, the “guardianship of the [Shia] jurist,” advocated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and exercised in Iran following the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Instead, Al-Sistani has advocated the notion that clerics should not play an executive or administrative role in state affairs, but should limit their non-religious role to giving advice on issues of public interest without being directly involved in government matters.

Al-Sistani has not only rejected the dogma of “guardianship,” but has even explicitly called for a “civic state” in Iraq rather than a religious one, distancing himself from the theocracy preached and practised by the Islamic Republic in Iran.

With his latest remarks making the headlines, Al-Sistani has showed that he is not only continuing in the same line, but that he has also raised the reform of Iraq’s dysfunctional political system to the forefront of his mission. 

Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to push for parliamentary elections under a new law in 2021, however, have produced no results so far, as Iraq’s ruling factions remain vehemently opposed to key reforms in the electoral law.

Most of the opposition to such reforms comes from Iran’s Shia allies in the government, who have reasserted their power in the country’s parliament and are seeking to maintain their grip on the country.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran extended its influence in Iraq by forming successive Iraqi governments following inconclusive elections and virtually making Tehran the real kingmaker in Iraq.

Since then, Iran has gone a long way towards consolidating its huge political, economic and religious influence in Iraq due largely to the empowerment of its Shia allies, mostly Saddam opponents who lived in Iran before his overthrow.

Despite increasing resentment against its influence in the country, Iran has shown no sign of changing the dynamics of its engagement in Iraq, and it has continued to make inroads into the beleaguered nation.

Perhaps Iran’s most serious interference in Iraq has been the role it has played in the crackdown on the pro-reform protesters through rogue Shia militias that are believed to be directly answerable to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Many Iraqis now believe that the fate of the country’s next elections may ultimately be decided in Tehran, as the pro-Iran Shia political elite in Iraq remains powerful and the Islamic Republic continues to exert its influence in Iraq. 

The failure of Al-Kadhimi to introduce a new electoral law in order to bring in representatives from the protesters and other pro-reform groups will make Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s government easier.

For such reasons, all eyes and hopes to save Iraq now rest on Al-Sistani, who has established himself as a powerful voice in Iraq’s politics. He has put his weight behind Al-Kadhimi and given centre-stage to Iraqis hitherto marginalised by the Iran-backed political establishment.

Despite being healthy and active for his age, there are concerns over Al-Sistani’s health. He turned 90 this year, and concerns have been growing since he underwent surgery on a fracture in January following an accident in his home in Najaf.

For many Iraqis, the personal authority and moral legacy of Al-Sistani will be hanging in the balance over the next few months if Al-Kadhimi fails to deliver on his promised reforms and pro-Iran groups continue to consolidate their gains in Iraq’s fragile political system. 

This reflects a conviction, reinforced repeatedly over the last 18 years, of Al-Sistani’s passionate belief in a stable and sovereign Iraq, and there are fears that his death could prompt a stark turnaround in the Shia spiritual leadership in Iraq in challenging Iran’s influence in the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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