Iran’s Regional Ambitions Will Suffer After Losing Out in Iraq

Dnyanesh Kamat

Beset with its economic woes and with the looming question of finding a successor to its supreme leader, Iran will be unable to capitalize on a leadership vacuum opening up in Iraq’s Shiite clerical establishment. This will hamper Iran’s geopolitical ambitions and ensure Iraq’s strategic independence in the long term.

The death of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, chairman of Iran’s expediency council, on December 24 threw a spanner in the works of the Iranian regime, for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had long been grooming Shahroudi as his chosen successor. Originally from Najaf in Iraq, Shahroudi was also expected to ascend to the position of Iraq’s grand ayatollah, upon the death of the incumbent, Ali Al Sistani, thereby ending the chasm between the clerical establishments of both countries. Now with no clear successor in sight to either the 79-year-old Khamenei or 88-year-old Sistani, both believed to be in failing health, the mantle of clerical leadership in both countries is now in play.

Iran’s regime has long coveted control over Najaf’s network of seminaries for a variety of reasons. Residing in the spiritual and political center of Shiite Islam, Najaf’s clerics have historically eclipsed their Iran-based counterparts in terms of influence in the Shiite world. Home to the tomb of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Islam’s fourth caliph and the first Shiite imam, Najaf is visited by millions of Shiite pilgrims every year. Najaf’s clerics, in addition to providing spiritual guidance to the faithful, also manage charity networks that dole out patronage to Shiites not just in Iraq but across the world. These networks include hospitals, schools, orphanages and seminaries that are funded by donations, endowments and religious taxes. Gaining control of these transnational patronage networks would strengthen Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

Controlling Najaf will also remove the main holdout against Iran’s governing ideology, the velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), which institutionalizes the role of clerics in government and that of an absolute power-wielding supreme leader at its apex. Najaf’s clerics in general and Sistani in particular, have consistently rejected the velayat-e-faqih­ theory, preferring instead that clerics stay out of politics altogether. For example, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sistani indicated his support for the creation of a civil state in Iraq – with a government formed as a result of multiparty elections and legitimized by the will of Iraqi voters – instead of an Iran-style theocracy.

On the rare occasion that Sistani has intervened in politics, it has almost always been at cross-purposes to Iran’s strategic interests. Sistani’s 2014 fatwa calling on Iraqi citizens to defend their country against ISIS framed the issue as that of Iraq’s national defense by its citizens rather than as part of a transnational struggle that would have welcomed Iranian intervention. In the same year, yet another intervention by Sistani led to the resignation of the pro-Iran then-prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, widely seen as divisive and ineffective in combating ISIS. Keen to keep Iran out of Iraqi politics, Sistani last year openly called for the Popular Mobilization Force – Iran-backed Iraqi militias that fought against ISIS – to not participate in general elections. In early February, Sistani made a statement rejecting Iraq’s use as a “launching pad for harming any other country,” aimed as much at Iran as at the US.

Suffice it to say that Iran will try to make the most of political opportunities that will open up in Iraq in a post-Sistani period. However, this is not going to be a cakewalk. Pro-Iran parties failed to win last year’s general elections in Iraq and are now constituent parts of an awkward post-election condominium with an Iraqi nationalist-communist bloc led by Muqtada Al Sadr.

Najaf’s other three grand ayatollahs remain broadly aligned with Sistani’s ideology, and it will be difficult to get them and the broader Najaf clergy to toe Tehran’s line. Iran’s infrastructure push into Najaf – it is funding a $300 million expansion of the Imam Ali shrine – is also likely to come to a halt as its economy feels the bite of American sanctions.

More importantly, choosing a successor to Khamenei is likely to preoccupy minds in Tehran in the near-term. Even though there are other candidates in the fray, such as Iran’s chief of judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, and a former presidential candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, none of them has the credentials to don the mantle of leadership for Shiites beyond Iran, as was originally intended by Khamenei. Moreover, a worsening economy and attendant political strife in Iran may either lead to a coup by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or the replacement of the supreme leader’s position by a collective leadership council. In short, the Iranian regime will be far too busy putting out political and economic fires within Iran to have the capacity to leverage political opportunities in Iraq.

Having failed to conjure up a favorable post-election configuration in Baghdad, Iran looks likely to be unable to shape the future of Najaf’s clerical leadership to its liking either. This is likely to compromise Iran’s quest to achieve unbridled hegemony in an area from Tehran to Beirut. With significant oil and natural gas deposits and a sizeable population base, an Iraq that preserves its strategic independence could yet again emerge as a credible counterweight to Iran.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.