“Popular uprising” or “Zionist conspiracy”? These are the two labels dominating the analysis of the Iraqi popular uprising, now entering its fifth week, by the Shiite clergy in Iran and Iraq.
From Najaf, Iraq’s top Shiite authority Ali Sistani has just acknowledge the legitimacy of the uprising and warned unspecified “foreign powers” to stop intervening in Iraqi affairs. From Tehran, however, Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide” in Iran, has claimed that the uprising is the result of a “conspiracy” by enemies of Islam, urging the Iraqi authorities to crush it by force if necessary.
Sistani’s message, read during the Friday Prayer gathering in Karbala, southern Iraq, fell short of expressing outright support for the uprising but expressed sympathy with “non-violent protests”. Supporters of the uprising find this short of their expectations but welcome Sistani’s call for an end to the use of military force against protesters.
Khamenei’s message, pronounced in an address to the military chiefs in Tehran linked the events in Iraq with what he described as “similar sinister dreams that they had about Iran.” Despite its defiant tone, Khamenei’s speech clearly indicated a deepening anxiety in the Islamic Republic. Initial reports that Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Quds Corps that is in charge of exporting revolution, has visited Baghdad to coordinate plans to crush the uprising were circulated by official circles in Tehran. However, they were quickly dashed when policymakers realized the danger of Iran overreaching beyond its true abilities in Iraq.
Iraq is the closest country to Iran for a number of reasons. To start with, it has the longest border, 1425 kilometers, among all of Iran’s 15 neighbors. Iraq is also home to the world’s third largest Shiite community after Iran and India. Iraqi Kurds, representing just under 20 percent of the population, have always been seen by Iran, which is itself home to some 5 million Kurds, as kith and kin.
Almost all Iranian-Arab tribes in southwest Iran have branches on the other side of the border with Iraq. The presence in Iran of over two million Iraqi refugees, driven out by Saddam Hussein over three decades, means that numerous Iraqis, including some now in top political and military positions in Baghdad, have dual Iranian-Iraqi nationality.
Some 90 percent of Iraqis live within a 100-kilometer radius of the border with Iran. Each year an estimated 12 million Iranians travel to Iraq for pilgrimage to holy cities while over 10,000 Iranian clerics, including Sistani himself, operate from bases in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad.
In the past two years, Iraq’s importance for Iran has risen further for another reason: the re-imposition by US President Donald Trump of sanctions that his predecessor Barack Obama had suspended. Reliable sources in Tehran assert that Iraq is now the main venue for sanctions-busting operations by Iran.
“Losing Iraq” looms as a major concern for the Khomeinist ruling elite in Tehran. A successful Iraq without “walayat al-faqih” would puncture the claim that Shiites must live under a Khomeinist regime with a cleric in charge of the nation. It would boost the position of the majority of Shiite clergy in both Iran and Iraq who believe that involvement in government is not in the interest of the faith. Some senior clerics, notably Muhammad-Jawad Alawi Borujerdi, believe that clerics should resume their traditional role as “the conscience of society and not its rulers.
The Khomeinist version of Shiism is challenged by yet another strand of theology that Tehran propagandists brand as “English Shiism”. This refers to a movement led by Muhammad Shirazi Earlier this week, several Friday Prayer leaders in Tehran and other major Iranian cities devoted their sermons (khutbah) to claims that “English Shiism” was behind the current nationwide revolt in Iraq. “English Shiism” regards any involvement by the clergy in politics as a form of secularization, thus anathema to “true believers.” For them the Khomeinist regime in Tehran is a political construct that is abusing religion for its own purposes.
In filigree to these theological disputes, one may also detect a no-holds-bar power struggle over who should be the next “Marja al-Taqlid”, a sort of unofficial Pope of Shiism that wields immense financial and political power in both Iraq and Iraq. As long as Sistani is alive, that position cannot be openly contested. Over the past 25 years, Iran has invested huge sums in trying to promote Khamenei as the real “Marja’a” in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, with no success.
Now, however, Sistani’s age combined with reports of his poor health, never confirmed, appear to be whetting the appetite of several mullahs. The most active, though least qualified, among these is Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric who has tried to jump on the bandwagon rolled by the current uprising.
According to experts, the “Marja’a” should fulfill two conditions: Being fluent in both Arabic and Persian, and having published a “risalah” or dissertation endorsed by at least one grand ayatollah. Sadr meets the first condition but not the second because he has not published a “risalah”. He spent five years in Qom to perfect his Persian and learn the rudiments of Shiite theology, putting himself in the orbit as a future ayatollah. However, he has remained clearly divided between the temptation of a political career and the dream of a religious status.
What the contests for “marjaiyah” may not realize is that the current uprising in Iraq represents a new generation that does not identify itself in terms of religious sect or linguistic ethnic divisions.
The main slogan in the streets of Iraq remains: We want a nation that is respected and a people that have dignity.