For outsiders, all Shia groups know just one master, Iran, a Shia-majority country. But recent escalations between the two Shia groups disprove that understanding.
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Tehran has aimed to increase its political and military presence across the Middle East, creating its own Shia proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East.
With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington unexpectedly helped Iran play its political game better, removing one of Tehran’s fiercest enemies, Saddam Hussein, the former Sunni leader of the Shia-majority country.
Since that time, Iran has dominated the Iraqi political life. The recent escalations between Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani and Iran’s Shia spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, however, show that something has changed in terms of Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.
The main problem between the two leaderships is related to the composition of Iraq’s top militia group, Hashdi Shabi, which means Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Iraqi factions loyal to either Tehran or Baghdad have grave differences over how Hashdi Shabi should be led.
“The emergence of divisions has been long expected. As much as Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased, these divisions become more clear and visible,” Bilgay Duman, the coordinator of Iraq Studies Department at Turkey’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM).
Since last year, a protest movement with a clear anti-Iran message has also dominated the streets of Baghdad, demanding the Iraqi leadership to limit Tehran’s oversize influence in the country.
“Iraq’s Shiites feel that they can not move independently, being under the total control of Iran. As a result, they began reacting to Iran. The emergence of Hashdi Shabi, which has long appeared to follow Iran’s lead along with other Shia militia groups, has irritated them a lot,” Duman tells TRT World.
Now forces loyal to Sistani and groups taking orders from Khamenei clash each other for the control of Hashdi al Shabi, Duman says. “For sometime, Hashdi Shabi goes through a serious internal struggle,” he says.
“Iran-backed Shia militias’ disregard of Iraq’s national interests and priorities has begun hesitating them [Iraqi Shiites] and particularly, Sistani,” says Duman.
Interestingly, Sistani was born in Iran, coming from a prominent Iranian Shia clergy family. He moved to Iraq in 1951 and has lived there as an influential cleric since then.
Different Shia schools of thought
While Sistani is ethnically Iranian not an Arab like many Iraqi Shiites, his disagreement with his home country’s clergy has roots in their different understanding of religion’s role in politics. Divisions between the two clergy is not a new thing, says Duman.
“There has long been a general division of thought between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. In Iran, there is a systemic approach based on Velayat-i Faqih [since Iranian Revolution of 1979] while Iraqi Shiites tend to follow a traditional version of Shia understanding,” says Duman.
Velayat-i Faqih literally means the custodian of Muslims scholars. But in Iranian political context, it means much more than that meaning.
The new concept was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s towering Shia cleric in the 1970s, who disliked the traditional Shia understanding of separation between religious and political affairs. Instead, by introducing the modern concept of Velayat-i Faqih, he sought to revolutionise the traditional Shia, fostering the idea that Iran’s politics should be dominated by its Shia clerics.
With the 1979 Revolution, Khomeini found his perfect opportunity to institutionalise his Velayat-i Faqih concept, changing Iran’s political system from scratch. He became the country’s first spiritual leader, who is also called the supreme leader, making the position a decisive factor in Iranian politics.
Remarkably, Khamenei, Iran’s current spiritual leader, also held the country’s top political office in the past, being the former president between 1981 and 1989. Since the end of his political term, he has been the supreme leader of Iran, being elected to the post by the Assembly of Experts, a kind of council of clerics and scholars, following the death of Khomeini in 1989.
“Sistani has long opposed the Velayat-i Faqih understanding of Shiism,” Duman tells TRT World. “Najaf Shiism wants to protect its traditional sense,” Duman says, referring to the Iraqi city, which is regarded as holy by Shiites across the world. Ali, Prophet Muhammed’s son-in-law and one of his leading companions, who is seen by Shia as its first Imam as both their religious and political leader, was also buried in Najaf.
Qom, Iran’s ancient city, where Iran’s Shia religious leadership is based, stands against Najaf’s traditional Shia understanding by largely embracing Khomeini’s Velayat-i Faqih concept, says Mehmet Alaca, an expert on Iran’s Shia proxies across the Middle East. Despite being closer to Najaf's understanding of Shia, in his early years, Sistani was also educated in Qom.
“The conflict between Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran is a long-standing rivalry over which stands as the centre of the Shi’a world, and from where authority should be derived,” Alaca wrote in April.
There has also been an ethnic factor, which has contributed to differences between the two clergies. Iraq’s Shiites are overwhelmingly Arabs while Iran’s Shiites are mainly Persians.
“There is also an ethnic tension. On the one hand, you see Arab Shiism. On the other hand, you see Persian Shiism. I think there is also an ongoing struggle between these two. Since the protests, this difference also appears to have surfaced,” Duman says.
Some Iraqi Shia figures like Ammar al Hakim and Muqtada al Sadr, who control large sections of Iraq’s Shia society through their respective late fathers’ influences, play to Arab political identity with their nationalistic approaches, according to Duman.
In 2018, Sadr visited Saudi Arabia, one of the leading Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East, signalling his rapprochement policy with Arab states to limit Persian-majority Iran’s influence over Iraq.
“Most of Iraqi Shiites are Arab nationalists and have long suspected Iran’s political motives in their country,” says Haci Rifat Yilmaz, a businessman, who operates in Iraq. Yilmaz has connections with numerous top Iraqi Shia clerical figures.
“They do not approve Iran’s conduct in Iraq much,” Yilmaz tells TRT World.
Their disapproval has appeared to increase as Iraq’s violent protests have dramatically changed the political landscape, eventually toppling the former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and bringing Mustafa al Kadhimi, a former journalist and a secularist politician, in power.
“Kadhimi’s visit to Iran was remarkable, giving a message to Tehran that ‘Do not intervene in our internal politics’. It was very important. He has also developed a strategic dialogue with the US [in the face of a strong Iranian opposition],” Duman says.
Kadhimi is also trying hard to rule over Hashdi Shabi, of which Iran has lost a considerable power, according to Duman. While some groups inside Hashdi Shabi are still more loyal to Iran, others, who accept Sistani’s leadership, have appeared to follow Baghdad’s lead, Duman says.
Kadhimi has also recently visited Turkey, promising support to Turkey in its fight against the PKK, a terror group to Turkey, the US and the EU, in return to garner backing from Ankara to balance Tehran’s hold over Iraq, according to both Duman and Yilmaz.
Kadhimi has also reached Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to reestablish the country’s ties with the Arab world.
All of these signs indicate that Iraq is trying to move away from Iran’s orbit, according to Duman.
Yilmaz also thinks similarly to Duman. “They [Iraqis] have recently launched an integration effort with the world, particularly, with the US,” Yilmaz says.
The US also appears to use Iraq-Iran Shia differences to increase its leverage in Iraq by promising economic and political support to the financially struggling country, says Duman. “The US support appears to encourage more Iraqis to come out openly against Iran,” he says.
But some Iranians like Fatima A. Karimkhan, a Tehran-based journalist, think that people read too much on differences between Iraq and Iran.
“Basically, if you can see the smoke, there should be fire somewhere, but I am not that much sure if it means that tensions are escalating or not,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
“Nowadays, it is common that whatever happened in Iraq, which you can name, has been interpreted as a sign of tensions between Iran and Iraq, which is not that much realistic,” she says.
Karimkhan also thinks that Sistani and Khamenei are on good terms.
“Sure they are. Nothing has happened to say anything has changed, so they are on the same page as they were before,” she adds.