Ostensibly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Iraq was meant to deepen economic ties between the two neighbors, historically divided by political and sectarian enmities as much as they are connected by geography. The trip was also meant to demonstrate to the U.S. that Tehran and Baghdad would still do business with each other, despite the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran.
None of this was especially remarkable: the Islamic Republic’s influence over Iraq has grown exponentially in recent years, underscored by Iran’s control of Shiite militias that have captured much of the state security apparatus and now loom ever larger on the political stage. No Iraqi government, much less one led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a weak Shia politician, would dare give a representative of the Iranian regime anything less than an effusive welcome.
Only one Iraqi leader could have kept Rouhani at arm’s length: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most revered cleric. But he didn’t. The audience he gave the Iranian president in the Shia holy city of Najaf says as much about Sistani’s own political adventurism as it does about Iraq’s subservience to Iran.
First, a little background. Sistani, now 88, became a Grand Ayatollah—the highest office in the Shia clergy—during the reign of Saddam Hussein. That he survived the dictator, who ordered the assassination of clerics he disliked, is a testament to Sistani’s studious avoidance of politics. His Friday sermons, often delivered by proxies as he himself aged, made little or no reference to the tyrant’s repression of the Shia.
After a U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam in 2003, Sistani was able to comment more openly about the way the country was being ruled, criticizing first the American administrators and then the Iraqi governments that followed. But when politicians, keenly aware of his sway over tens of millions of potential voters, sought his endorsement, Sistani demurred. The most he would do is express indirect support for a coalition of Shia parties.
That began to change after the 2014 parliamentary election, which resulted in a hung parliament, followed by frenetic behind-the-scenes jockeying for power by the two-term Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shia contenders. A letter from Sistani, calling for the “selection of a new prime minister who has wide national acceptance,” was interpreted as a thumbs-down for Maliki: he was not new, and, having lost control of large parts of the country to ISIS, did not have wide national acceptance.
Four years later, the beneficiary of Sistani’s intervention, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, would himself fall at the Grand Ayatollah’s command. After another indecisive election, Sistani opined that politicians in power should not retain their offices. Although Abadi had only been in charge for one term, during which he had overseen the recapture of territory from ISIS, he was weakened by discontent over corruption and shortages of water and electricity: Sistani’s decree doomed him. (Sistani is apparently untroubled by the public offices that Abdul Mahdi has previously held, including two cabinet posts and the vice presidency, none of them with any distinction.)
Throughout, Sistani remained uninterested in Iraq’s external relations. In 2008, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit postwar Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah turned down requests for an audience. Nor did Sistani meet any American president. He did receive Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2011.
So why now—and why Rouhani? Grand Ayatollahs tend not to care about quotidian matters such as economic ties, or sanctions. Nor would Sistani feel threatened by Iran’s proxy militias: his personal prestige is so great, they would not dare move against him.
One explanation: By welcoming Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric, Sistani is sending a message to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardliner. That would mark the first time that Sistani has sought to meddle in the politics of a neighboring country—and a traditional enemy, to boot. Doing so is uncharacteristically bold.
To what end, though? Some analysts reckon a blessing from Sistani, who enjoys a wide following in Iran, will strengthen Rouhani’s hand back home. But this is hard to credit: Iranian hardliners have never placed much store by outside clerics, even one so venerable as Sistani. Their power derives from the likes of Khamenei, and looks set to be extended by Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric who runs Iran’s judiciary and will have the greatest say in who succeeds the Supreme Leader.
The other possibility is that Sistani is sending a message to Baghdad—that he is now taking an interest in foreign policy, or at least in Iraqi-Iranian relations. Abdul Mahdi, a reluctant prime minister lacking any political standing, is in no position to object, but many Iraqis will rightly be alarmed. This is especially true of Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom live in fear of the militias backed by the regime Rouhani represents.
The wider Arab world will have noticed that Sistani has never extended the courtesy of an audience to any visiting Arab head of state—whether King Abdullah of Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait, or the presidents of Tunisia, Lebanon and Libya. Dabbling in foreign affairs, the Grand Ayatollah may find, can be a lot trickier than domestic politics.