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Will Iran Pick the Next Top Ayatolleh in Iraq?

Via Meadia regulars know that we call out the New York Times from time to time for bad reportage and poor editorial judgment, but today the Times has a piece that reminds us of just how good this paper can be at its best.

The piece is by Tim Arango, and it covers the developing struggle to succeed Grand Ayatolleh Ali al-Sistani, the most important religious figure in the Shiite world. Sistani, whose moderation and belief in democracy made him the most important single figure in Iraq during the American occupation, is now 83 years old and speculation is naturally turning to who will take his place.

Arango describes the wealthy, time-serving cleric that Iran hopes to put in Sistani’s place. One key issue will be that Sistani, in common with most Shiites around the world, rejects the political theory behind the Iranian Revolution. For most Shiites, religious leaders should stay out of politics. Replacing an anti-Khomeini cleric like Sistani with a partisan of the Iranian revolution would be a huge victory for Iran — both because Iranian influence in Iraq could be expected to grow and because it is Iraq rather than Iran that most Shiites consider to be the spiritual and intellectual center of their faith.

Read the whole thing; this is a solid piece of journalism that offers some vital insight into the future of Middle East politics.



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  • J R Yankovic

    Cool. Once again the MAINSTREAM Shiites prove they’re reflexively more moderate (they generally stop short of suicide bombing), and that the weight of their tradition is against at least a CLERICALIST theocracy. So, naturally, who do we continue to cozy up to? Why, those (reliably Russophobe) fundamentalist Sunnis, of course.

  • Kris

    Anyone care to point me to a good essay or book on Sistani and his role in the Iraqi interregnum?

  • Kris

    “Ayatolleh”? Is this also to be blamed on WordPress?

  • Lorenz Gude

    I think this article is typical Times journalism. It is better than some because it at least gets some of the major players correct, but it wraps the whole story in a classic fear based meme – the bogyman is unstoppable. The emotional agenda of the article is hard to miss which renders the piece suspect because it is follows the emotional structure of drama, not documentary reporting. Virtually all TV is emotional first, factual second, and this article is unnecessarily manipulative as articles in the Times often are. Like the cocoon piece about the Wisconsin primary recently discussed here.

    My basic take is that Sharoudi’s ascension is probably not at all inevitable. One clue that things may not be as dire as described is that the article portrays the elements that might oppose Sharoudi as mysterious and hard to identify.

    Having simply followed Sistani (and young Sadr) through the war I only have a rudimentary grasp of Iraqi Shiite politics, but I can see major problems with the article. The first is almost always left out of reporting on Iraq. That is the Iraqi Shiites are predominately Arab, the Iranians Persian. They have been rivals since before Roman times. I’m not saying that ethnicity trumps sectarian identity, just that after ten years of watching the media almost never mention it I am not impressed. Likewise the mischaracterization of Moktade al Sadr as an anti American cleric is also typical. He is first and foremost an Iraqi Shiite nationalist. Furthermore his bonifides come directly from his father (not his father in law), Grand Ayatolla Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al Sadr. He is the one after whom Sadr city is named and who led the Shiite resistance against Saddam from within Bhagdad until he was assassinated along with two of his sons in Najaf in 1999.

    My understanding is that within Iraq Grand Ayatollah Sistani’ssupport comes from middle class Iraqi Shiites. Young Sadr’s power base is among the poorer Shiites – the same people his father led. Although Sadr has allied himself with the Iranians during the American period he also conferred with Sistani and sought his advice. From what I know, the question of who he will support will be a critical factor in deciding who will follow Sistani. Is he really fully supportive of the Iranian radical Shiite position of clerics like Shahroudi? I believe he was reported on this blog recently as playing the mediator between Maliki and he Kurds. Finding out what makes him tick and whether he will choose to follow the Radical Shiite pattern of totally confounding church and state or strive to maintain some distance between the two in the quietist tradition is probably one of the most important known unknowns in the current situation. Sadr is young, he will have a huge effect on the future Iraq if he has anything to say about it. That is a far more important story than fearfully speculating who will succeed Sistani.

  • Corlyss

    I’m more concerned about whether the Ayatollehs and the PLA’s “small donors” are going to keep in office the American president they put into office in 2008.

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