The Post Sistani and Khamenei Period

ByMohammad Al-Sayyad

Abbas Kadhim,   Resident Senior Fellow and the Iraq Initiative Director at the Atlantic Council and Barbara Slavin, Director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council  co-authored a report titled,  “After Sistani and Khamenei: Looming Successions Will Shape the Middle East.” Despite the importance of the report, I have some criticisms related to some generalizations made by the authors. I will highlight some of them in this brief article.

With regard to the section in the report concerning the Iraqi Supreme Marjaya led by  Ayatollah Sistani, the authors are correct when they say that he undoubtedly plays a prominent role in the course of religious and political issues in Iraq – even outside Iraq, particularly when it comes to issues that are related to the overall affairs of the Shiite community.

It seems that the Iranians are preparing themselves for the post-Sistani era. However, Iran’s handling of the vacuum after  Sistani’s death will be dependent on whether Khamenei is alive or dead. In addition,  Iran is keen to fill the vacuum of power in Iraq through the use of hard power tools such as militias loyal to Tehran rather than taking control over the Iraqi Supreme Marjaya, i.e., the Najaf Hawza— even though spreading its influence inside the Iraqi Marjaya is still an Iranian goal. It is worth mentioning that after the death of Mahmoud Shahroudi, Iran lost a strong bargaining chip that would have helped it compete with the Najaf Marjaya.

Iranian strategy in Iraq is based on two parallel strands. The first is infiltration into Iraq’s Hawza through the use of soft  power tools such as by deploying pro-Iranian clerics and indoctrinating Hawza students with the theory of Velayat-e Faqih.  The second is penetration by creating armed militias that impose a fait accompli policy. The extent of this policy was evident when the Hezbollah Brigades refused to withdraw from southern Anbar some time ago, despite the Iraqi prime minister requesting them to withdraw.

Iran’s hard power tools, particularly its deployment of armed militias,  undermined Sistani’s authority when they refused to declare their loyalty to the Iraqi state and be fully integrated within the Iraqi  Army. Sistani has repeatedly requested that arms should be limited to the state exclusively. He even insisted on this during his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in March 2019, however, his demand has not yet been fulfilled.

Iranian soft and hard power tools have undermined Sistani’s Marjaya by creating fertile ground for Iran’s ideology and politics in Iraq. However, Iran at the same time has shown some respect to Sistani, but without declaring allegiance to him. Iran has refused to commit to his Marjaya. The militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)  mostly follow Khamenei’s Marjaya. This contradicts what the authors said regarding the PMF drawing its legitimacy from Sistani, who is the only influential figure and supervisor over the PMF’s actions. Their statement is an inaccurate overgeneralization as a party or entity being close to the Najaf Marjaya is not in itself indicative of legitimacy being derived from it.     For example, the Sadrists, who are closer to the Iraqi Marjaya in Najaf than any other party in Iraq, including the PMF, do not derive their legitimacy from Sistani, given the historical, political and juristic differences between them and Sistani!

Also,  we cannot ignore Iran’s role during the Shah’s period in transferring the position of Marjaya after Borujerdi’s death to Mr. Mohsen Al-Hakim in Najaf, in order to get rid of the burden. Prior to this, some clerics were angry at  Mirza Alshirazi’s refusal to meet Naseeruddin Shah. They were concerned about the economic consequences the Najafi jurists might face if Naseeruddin Shah was displeased by Alshirazi’s refusal, given the fact that the jurists of the Hawza were in need of Iran’s financial support. The Lebanese thinker Hani Fahs views Iran’s rapprochement towards Najaf as a means of obtaining legitimacy. Iran is in need of local Hawzas generally and the Najaf Hawza in particular as it is the largest and primary Shiite Hawza which holds a special status in the Shiite tradition and imagination.

With regard to choosing the supreme marja after the death of the current marja in Najaf, historically there has been no specific criteria, although the two authors like to claim that there are two criteria for choosing a  successor marja. They wrote, “There is no specific procedure for succession in the Najaf marja’iya, no role for the state to play in selecting a successor, nor even a loophole to tip the balance in favor of one contender over the others. There are two criteria for selecting a marja: piety and superiority of knowledge in jurisprudence.”

The authors could not distinguish between the criteria for selecting a marja in general and the criteria for selecting the supreme marja. The highest degree of knowledge and piety are among the criteria of a mujtahid [a scholar of lower standing], regardless of his location or position. However, these criteria are subjective and cannot be measured objectively. Thus,  to identify and agree upon these criteria remains impossible. Also, it cannot be claimed that the criteria mentioned by the authors are conditions for selecting the supreme marja and embodied exclusively in one person because the supreme marja is appointed through screening and Al-ʾIjmāʿ [refers to a unanimous agreement among scholars and religious figures] of the religious establishment.

In my opinion, the Marjaya will operate collectively after the death of Sistani on the basis of ‘commonality’ and ‘acceptance by the believers’ as well as in accordance with the principles of ijtihad and taqlid. The Marjaya will not be dominated by high ranking clerics. The current situation in Najaf is similar to the situation before the death of Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in 1992 when Abd al-A’la al-Sabziwari succeeded him in 1993. He was elected by a broad spectrum of Shiites in Iraq and Iran. However,  he died months after the death of al-Khoei. Even after the death of al-Sabziwari, it is not possible to say that Sistani took control of the Marjaya exclusively. There was competition between Sistani and Al-Sadr, Murtaza Borujerdi, and Ali al-Gharawi to lead the Najaf Hawza. It was largely a collective Marjaya. The others died and Sistani stayed away from the political arena until the fall of Saddam’s government. He then took exclusive control of the Marjaya.  Sistani’s power is composed of religious, doctrinal, political, and economic components that cannot be separated from one another.   Its outcomes cannot also be predicted. We need time to identify and categorize these components.  

Therefore, Sistani will likely be succeeded by a group of marjas, headed by al-Fayyad, al-Hakim, and Bashir al-Najafi.  One of them may take the lead, or perhaps a  marja from outside this circle will assume the leadership of the  Marjaya. The Iraqi Marjaya’s characteristics, its inner conflicts, and its position among Shiite communities in Shiite capitals make it difficult to infer who will be the next marja of Najaf. 

In all cases, the next marja  cannot diverge from the inherited Najaf line since he represents it and is part of it. Also, no one can undermine the screening and selection process given the influence of political and economic and juristic lobbying groups. The authors’  point of view that the next marja will shape the political future of Iraq, or that he will gradually implement a version of the Iranian jurist guardianship model is illustrated in their statement:

“Identifying a successor will put the country in his hands to mold its political future in any way he likes. The new marja’ can choose to continue Sistani’s path of self-restraint and reserve for himself the role of an impartial supporter of the state, with limited interference only in cases of utmost necessity—or he could opt for gradual intervention toward some measure of wilayat al-faqih, the Iranian system (also called Velayet-e Faqih) in which a senior cleric has the last word on all major government decisions.”

This inaccurate statement is inconsistent with the political, social, and historical heritage of the Iraqi state. In addition, it is inconsistent with the thinking of Iraq’s elite marja and demographics, as well as its religious Hawza and fatwa heritage, since the time of Mirza Hussein Khalil, Akhund Khorasani, “the elitist marja,” and his follower Mohammad Kazim Yazdi “the populist marja,” until today.

This screening process and method of selection as well as studying its development from past centuries up to the present day requires in-depth research.  We may work on it later at the International Institute of Iranian Studies (Rasanah).

It can be said that this assumption, which is the transformation of the Najaf Marjaya into a model similar to the  Velayat-e Faqih model, is unacceptable even at the level of the Iranian religious elite. There is only one  guardian  jurist in Tehran who seeks to establish a world government and all Shiites must be loyal to him. His struggle with Najaf is not for Najaf  to  create its own guardian jurist, but for Najaf to submit to the rule of the  guardian  jurist in Tehran. There is a big difference between the two issues.

No marja, regardless of his Shiite hegemony and dominance in Iraq, can shape the political future of the state as he wishes. He is not the guardian jurist. He does not act exclusively as there are political constraints and the  Hawza and the region would prevent him.

The conclusion in my opinion: Usually after the death of the marja  in Najaf, the supreme marja  is not determined immediately after him because there are no elections or selection processes, but it is determined by screening and time. Therefore, it will take a couple of months before the supreme marja is selected.

This is in contrast to the Iranian supreme leader, who is chosen directly by the state and not by high ranking clerics,  or the public, and he assumes his duties immediately upon his selection by the Assembly of Experts, even if he does not meet the conditions of knowledgeability and jurisprudence as was the case with Khamenei, because the Iranian Marjaya is exclusively in the hands of the state, unlike the Najaf Marjaya.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Mohammad Al-Sayyad
Mohammad Al-Sayyad
A researcher of ideological studies at Rasanah