U.S. officials who praise Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani while denouncing Iran’s supreme leader fail to grasp that the two clerical leaders have a shared interest in resisting outside threats.
On Jan. 17, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent Shiite leader in Iraq, was discharged from the hospital, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted three tweets—in English, Arabic, and Farsi—wishing him a speedy recovery and calling the ayatollah “a source of guidance and inspiration.”
The friendly approach toward Sistani was regarded as an attempt by Pompeo to portray U.S. support for the ayatollah, who the administration believes is countering Iranian influence in Iraq. This comes only weeks after Pompeo himself encouraged President Donald Trump to assassinate the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in an airstrike while the general was visiting Iraq.
It is no secret that Pompeo is a champion of exerting a maximum pressure strategy on what he calls “Khamenei’s kleptocracy,” in reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his different and conflicting attitudes toward the two ayatollahs are yet another miscalculation on the part of the U.S. government in the tumultuous Middle East.
Just a day after the killing of Suleimani, Sistani sent an unprecedented letter to Khamenei expressing his condolences to Iran’s leader.
Sistani praised the extraordinary role that the martyr Suleimani played in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.The letter is the first of its kind sent by Sistani to Khamenei in decades.
The subject of the letter—expressing condolences to Khamenei over the death of Suleimani—is noteworthy. Sistani has rarely issued a letter over the death of a non-cleric. This raises the question of what was so unique about Suleimani that made Sistani send a public letter to Khamenei. The answer lies in their shared belief in the necessity of an orchestrated, transnational effort to combat threats from outsiders. The perceived threat for the two ayatollahs comes both from fanatical militant groups like the Islamic State and from foreign intervention in the region. In their eyes, both have exacerbated regional instability over the past decade.
To tackle the former threat, Sistani took striking and definitive action in June 2014. As the threat of Islamic State encroachment on Baghdad was heightening, he issued a fatwa of jihad, obligating all Iraqis who were able to fight the terrorists to join the Iraqi security forces and to defend their homeland. This was almost a century after Ayatollah Sayyid Kadhim al-Yazdi’s fatwa against British forces who invaded Iraq in 1914, the last time a Shiite leader issued such a political edict.
His fatwa, nonetheless, paved the way for the foundation of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. It was then that Suleimani and Iran’s Quds Force rushed to help Iraqis (Sunni, Shiite, and most notably Kurds) to organize the popular units in their fight against the Islamic State. Sistani’s goal was the protection of Iraq as the homeland of all Iraqis. Sistani seeks a sovereign and strong Iraqi state, which can safeguard the Shiite community but also Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, and Shabaks.
Sistani recognized the “extraordinary” and “unforgettable” role Suleimani played in achieving this goal in his letter.When it comes to foreign intervention, as a Shiite religious elite, Sistani cannot remain on the sidelines when Shiites in other countries, including Lebanon and Iran, are in danger. A case in point is when he liaised covertly with the United States to support a cease-fire during the 2006 war between the militant group and Israel.
Hamed al-Khaffaf, Sistani’s representative in Beirut and his son-in-law, revealed in an interview with one of us in August 2012 that at the time, following a request from Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Sistani sent a dispatch to U.S. President George W. Bush through an Iraqi courier, reminding him about the regional consequences of postponing a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. A couple of days later, despite previous objections, the United States voted in favor of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
His attitude toward Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy under the leadership of his fellow ayatollahs, is different. Although he is of Iranian descent, he has never publicly intervened in Iran’s domestic affairs. He never answered questions of his Iranian Shiite followers, the majority of his followers, whenever he was asked about domestic issues. On the contrary, he has frequently advised those Iranian elites who met with him to become united under the leadership of Khamenei.
There is no debate over the fact that religious authorities in Iraq and Iran hold different political views. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that when either clerical establishment is threatened by outsiders, their collective priority will be to maintain unity. Indeed, mainstream Shiite ayatollahs believe that they must avoid any attempt to weaken clerical authority. As Iran is ruled by ayatollahs, for Sistani, no matter if he belongs to a different school of thought, any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran is tantamount to casting aspersions on Shiite Islam.
Sistani’s letter makes clear that he was not, is not, and would never be an enemy of Iran, despite all the differences he may have with its leaders. And this is a blind spot for decision-makers in Washington.
Time and again, U.S. strategy toward the Shiite ayatollahs has proved to be ill-informed when it comes to their internal dynamics, priorities, and interests. This internal dynamic—the ayatollahs’ nonnegotiable support for Shiite clerical authority and its stature—is so important and an unvarying principle among them that it even prompted the stubborn Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to revisit his earlier positions.
Sadr’s rise coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, in his early 20s, he openly criticized the Najaf religious authority, referring to it as a “silent school”—hence passive toward political events taking place in its surroundings. Sadr wanted Sistani to act as a revolutionary leader; he might have wanted to see an Iraqi version of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Yet the seemingly quiet Shiite leader, or marja, had a different agenda.From his perspective, the priority was the future of the Shiite community and its clerical authority in such a volatile time and area.Sistani was looking forward to the chance for Shiites to gain power in a democratic Iraq, though expressing on several occasions his dismay with the attitude of the Shiite political elites in power.