Iraq’s Ailing Ayatollah and the Future of Shia Moderation in Iraq

Photo Credit: Al-Arabiya

By: Rachel Bessette, Columnist

Amid concerns over the health of Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, many observers are warning of Iranian maneuvering to replace the ever-moderate Sistani with someone subservient to the religious establishment in Tehran. Throughout Iraq’s lurching, often-violent political transition, Ayatollah Sistani has consistently stood out as a powerful force dedicated to and capable of preventing Iraq’s precarious democratic experiment from completely falling off the rails. It was Sistani who prevailed over Paul Bremer in 2003 to hold direct elections for a national assembly to draft a new Iraqi constitution, who brokered a truce between US troops and the Mahdi Army in 2004, who President Obama asked for help in 2010 in getting Iraqi politicians to form a government, and who recently has been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to reform the Iraqi government and root out corruption. In recent years, 86 year-old Sistani’s deteriorating health has led to a whirl of speculation regarding who will replace the ailing Ayatollah. The most popular theory—that Sistani’s position atop the religious establishment in Najaf will be filled by an Iranian-aligned Ayatollah—must be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, the hawza, or seminaries, in Najaf may be one of the only institutions in Iraq impervious to Iranian maneuvering.

All Shia Muslims follow the teachings of a marja’ or “source of emulation” for guidance in religious matters. The vast majority of Shia look to one of the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf or Qom for guidance. The Grand Ayatollah of Qom and Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali al-Khameini far surpasses his colleagues in terms of name recognition. However, Ayatollah Sistani, his counterpart in Iraq, actually commands a following of around 80 percent of Shia worldwide.[i] Sistani represents a strand of Shi’ism known as “Quietism” that has a long history in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. Quietism, in contrast to the Iranian doctrine of wilayat al-faqih or ‘rule of the jurists’, advocates the separation of religion and politics. Although Sistani has at times violated the Quietest tradition by intervening in Iraqi politics, his involvement remains a stark contrast to the Iranian system in which politics are subservient to the authority of the religious establishment.

Many fear that Iran is maneuvering to take advantage of Sistani’s death to position one of their own atop the religious establishment in Najaf. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the religious instructor of Ayatollah Khameini and a member of Iran’s Guardian Council, is believed to be Tehran’s chosen candidate.[ii] Shahroudi is no stranger to Iraq, however. He was born in Najaf and, although he fled to Iran during the reign of Saddam Hussein, he is believed to be the spiritual leader of a number of members of Iraq’s ruling Dawa Party.[iii] Shahroudi’s followers, reportedly with financial backing from Tehran, are putting the final touches on what may be Najaf’s largest seminary. The seminary, which offers stipends, housing, health services and other benefits to students is a means for Shahroudi and Iran to gain influence among those who will ultimately choose Sistani’s successor.

A number of Tehran’s allies in Baghdad, many of whom have a fraught relationship with the religious establishment, are likely to converge behind Iran’s chosen candidate. However, support from Baghdad and influxes of Iranian cash are unlikely to have a decisive impact on Sistani’s ultimate successor. Rather, political jockeying and deep pockets may actually be counterproductive in Najaf, where the religious establishment prides itself on its independence, relying solely on contributions from followers and other financial endowments.[iv] The process of selecting a leading Grand Ayatollah occurs largely through grassroots dynamics in which tribes in southern Iraq and Shia worldwide begin to defer to another Grand Ayatollah for guidance. From this process a natural consensus eventually forms around a new leader.[v] It may be years before Ayatollah Sistani’s replacement is chosen, particularly due to the lack of a clear consensus in Najaf regarding his successor.[vi] During this period, Iran will undoubtedly use the networks, institutions and scholars it supports in Najaf to influence the process in its preferred candidate’s favor. However, it is unlikely that Ayatollah Sistani’s followers, as adherents to the Quietist strand of Shiism, will gravitate towards an Iranian advocate of wilayat al-faqih.

Those that have called the race for the Iranians have therefore jumped the gun. While it is too soon to eliminate Tehran from the game altogether, it is worth remembering that in this case the cards are stacked against them. Regardless of who ultimately assumes the mantle of the leading marja’ in Najaf, the void left with Ayatollah Sistani’s passing will be difficult to fill. His consistent support for Iraq’s democracy and check on corrupt political elites’ seeping nepotistic control of the country’s fragile institutions have been a guiding light in a nation whose political transition has frequently threatened to be subsumed by the tide of sectarian division and violence.

[i] Ashour, M. (2010, May 27). Sistani’s Rule. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from’s-Rule.htm

[ii] McGeogh, P. (2012, May 29). The Struggle to Succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from

[iii] Al-Khoei, H. (2012, June 26). Why iran-sponsored cleric can’t become iraq’s next religious leader. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from’t-become-iraq’s-next-religious-leader.htm

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Al-Khoei, H. (2016, September 07). Post-Sistani Iraq, Iran, and the Future of Shia Islam. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from

[vi] McGeogh, P.

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