Nuri al-Maliki’s government has sought to diminish the spiritual status of the Najaf marjaiyya—the clerical authorities that preside over the seminaries of Shia Islam’s third-holiest city. This group played a major role in building the foundations of the post-Saddam political system, and as tensions rise between Iraqi government officials and Ayatollah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani—the ranking senior marja of Najaf and the spiritual leader of most of Iraq’s Shia—the Iranian government has welcomed Prime Minister al-Maliki with open arms. 

Al-Maliki may be situating al-Sistani’s boycott of Baghdad within the historical framework of the prime minister’s Dawa Party and Najaf’s quietist clerics—a relationship that has run the gamut from apathy to open hostility. Following Shia control of Iraq’s national government for the first time after the fall of the Baathists in 2003, many assumed that tensions between Najaf and Baghdad would subside. Events since suggest otherwise. Post-1979 Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (“rule by jurisprudents”) regime has sought to curb the popularity and influence of the marjaiyya in Najaf—clerics who have firmly rejected the absolutist “guardianship” of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. Thus, Tehran’s mullahs are attempting to politicize the Najaf’s hawza (seminary) by pushing for recognition of Iran’s supreme leader as their head (this has been the case in less significant hawzas in Lebanon and the Gulf). Politically, Baghdad’s Shia leaders must tread carefully with both competing religious leaderships—Najaf’s quietist clerics and Tehran’s ayatollahs in Tehran. 

Even so, al-Maliki seeks to expand his own authority despite pressures to strike the same balancing act. Although Najaf’s passive-aggressive approach better suits the Iraqi president’s aspirations to broaden executive power, on the surface it would appear that he is favoring the Iranian option and bowing to Tehran’s demands. For example, Asa’ib al-Haqq—a breakaway from the Mahdi Army that enjoys significant support from Iran—was allowed to return to politics in January 2012, after having been banned from the Iraqi political sphere. On the religious side, some see the increasingly close ties between al-Maliki and Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi—the former head of the Iranian judicial system—as alarming. Some observers, however, downplay the impact of Shahroudi’s new office in Najaf—which opened in October 2011—and his potential to be appointed to the Dawa Party as marja; i.e, the replacement of octogenarian al-Sistani. These would be unprecedentedly bold steps by the Iranian government. But it is worth noting, however, that this is the first time that an Iranian government official and cleric at this level has opened an office in Najaf—and with the blessing of the Iraqi prime minister, no less.

But Najaf’s religious establishment is quite sensitive to Iranian involvement; tellingly, Ayatollah al-Sistani’s refused to receive Shahroudi during his intended visit to the holy city last fall. This sensitivity has only increased: Shahroudi has started to use his own funds to win over some of al-Sistani’s students—he offers higher monthly stipends, health insurance, and a number of other benefits. Baghdad has even been turning a blind eye to Shahroudi’s recruitment of Iraqi teachers residing in Iran to Najaf’s hawza in order to form a social-religious support base which Shahroudi would otherwise lack. Some scholars, however, detract from the appeal of al-Sistani’s rival as Najaf’s spiritual leader—given his status as a wealthy businessman and his long career as a judicial figure in Iran. 

But al-Maliki is looking to press forward wherever he meets no resistance. While Iran’s supreme leader has had no qualms about mixing politics and religion, Najaf’s has by and large maintained his quietist approach that dictates non-intervention in the political affairs of Iraq’s elected, constitutional government—with very few exceptions. Consequently, it seems that al-Maliki feels secure enough in his relationship with Najaf to thus embark on procedures contradicting the vision and interests of Iraq’s own Shia religious establishment. Al-Sistani’s representatives make no effort to hide their disappointment in the prime minister; and al-Maliki makes no effort to hide the deaf ear he turns to al-Sistani’s Friday prayer sermons (delivered by representatives) in Karbala which demand that corruption, lack of accountability, and bad governance be addressed. 

This must be something that the prime minister is aware of. Looking at the concessions that he has offered Tehran suggests that ignoring Najaf is more a tactical concession to Iran. Even though closer ties with Shahroudi are indeed important, the opening of his Najaf office will not have much of a practical impact on the established marjaiyya leadership there. The latter still have the socioeconomic sway and spiritual status to fend off any and all outside challengers—at least for the foreseeable future. 

Additionally, if al-Maliki were not certain that Shahroudi would be unable to, then he would never have granted him a foothold in Najaf to begin with; if the “Iranian model” of a politicized clergy were allowed to flourish in Iraq’s Shia religious center, it would inevitably (and quickly) clash with Baghdad. Furthermore, piecemeal concessions to Tehran maintain the prime minister’s interim position while he awaits a third term. 

It is widely believed that the near future will see a greater consolidation of political power for Maliki’s government in Baghdad, as Iraqi oil output is forecast to rise, and Iranian influence in the region may be waning—perhaps from the possible fall of the Assad regime and the recent impact of sanctions that have now-visibly eroded Iranian economic power. Indeed; it even appears that the U.S. administration still resists criticism at home and abroad for its support of al-Maliki—maybe in the hope that the anticipated economic boom in Iraq will strengthen the al-Maliki government’s position vis-à-vis Iran’s.  

Meanwhile, Ayatollah al-Sistani looks content to keep his quietist approach and have a representative in Karbala offer gently-worded advice to the government as part of Friday prayer sermons, rather than make directly political statements. This is likely to continue as long as there is hope of a political leader appearing in Baghdad (whether al-Maliki or someone else) who will stand up to an Iranian push to politicize the clergy, while also protecting Iraqi nationalist interests—as long as the alternative to al-Maliki is more chaos, that is.

But marginalizing Najaf entirely would mean eroding al-Maliki’s own power in Baghdad. This is something that the prime minister must realize all too well; after all, the blessings of that city’s religious establishment are a crucial component of his own legitimacy. 

Fadel Al-Kifaee is an Iraqi scholar. His forthcoming book is titled The Role of Najaf's Hawza and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Restructuring the Iraqi Governance System in Post-Baathist Iraq.

* This article was translated from Arabic.