Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Persian cleric who wields great influence in Iraqi politics, has been quiet lately. Too quiet, they might say in a horror movie.
Sistani, of course has cultivated a reputation as a “quietist,” that is, as a cleric who does not believe in a noisy role for the Shiite clergy in political affairs, as — you’ll note — is the opposite of the situation that prevails next door in Iran. There, the clergy rules under a questionable, or bogus, notion of Rule of the Jurisprudent, with the jurisprudent being a fancy word for a learned mullah. The fact that the mullahs in Iran are benighted and decidedly not learned hasn’t deterred them from advancing the “Rule” idea, which was dragged out of obscurity by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution.
Sistani reportedly does not subscribe to Khomeini’s Rule, also called the velayat-e faqih doctine. But if he doesn’t, he doesn’t say so. Apparently, his quietism extends even to being quiet about quietism.
Lately, though, Sistani is butting in once again in Iraqi politics. When they aren’t flocking to Tehran to figure out the makeup of the next Iraqi government, they’re flocking to Najaf, where the crusty, bearded old Sistani is holding court. The latest to make the pilgrimage is President Jalal Talabani, who’s the Kurdish (non-Shiite) leader closest to Iran. (Back in the 1990s, when Talabani and Masoud Barzani engaged in a mini-civil war, Talabani got Iran’s backing and Barzani sided with Saddam Hussein.)
An important Associated Press story now suggests that behind the scenes jockeying is underway to get ready for a successor to Sistani, 83, and that Iran is deeply involved. Iran’s role is no surprise, since they’ve had Sistani hemmed in for years and since Iran has been quietly assembling chips in Najaf, part of its overall effort at acquiring political muscle in Iraq. Reports AP:
Behind the scenes in this holy city, Shiite clerics are quietly intriguing over who will succeed the sect’s most revered and politically influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a tussle that circles around money and foreign meddling as much as knowledge and piety.
The 83-year-old al-Sistani’s departure from the scene would dramatically change Iraq’s political landscape. There are already signs that neighboring Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Najaf and has long-term hopes of seeing a figure closer to Tehran’s clerical leadership eventually ascend to al-Sistani’s position.
Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Sistani has used his patriarchal standing to keep stability throughout Iraq’s shaky shift to democratic rule by urging Shiites to stay away from any violence. At the same time, he has firmly promoted the rise and consolidation of Shiite power by urging his followers to turn out strongly in every election. …
Aides say al-Sistani has a clean bill of health, though a heart condition sent him to London for treatment in 2004. But his advanced age has been enough to spark maneuvering behind the scenes in Najaf, the cloistered holy city south of Baghdad that is the Shiite world’s foremost seat of theological scholarship, with dozens of religious schools.