The Magazine

Who Speaks for Iraqi Shiites?

Not Iran's ayatollahs.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By NATHANIEL RABKIN
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The most cautious of Iraq's ayatollahs in dealing with this question is also the greatest: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He has good reason to be cautious in his political statements: His agents collect millions of dollars in donations from believers in Iran, and his institutions spend millions on charitable and educational projects in that country. Asked on his website (, "What is your opinion about Wilayat al-Faqih?" Sistani writes that a legal scholar may exercise political power under certain "circumstances," but that he "must meet a number of conditions, including being generally acceptable to the mass of believers." It is left up to the reader to decide whether Ali Khamenei, famous for barring opposition election candidates and imprisoning critics, is "generally acceptable" to Iran's Shiite believers.

These four ayatollahs enjoy immense support among Iraq's Shiites. They face some competition from the followers of the renegade junior cleric Moktada al-Sadr, but the latter's movement is in utter disarray and in recent months has proved unable to respond to a harsh crackdown by government authorities. When Sadr's spokesmen still dare to show their faces, they often as not call their opponents Iranian agents or simply "Persians."

This favorite insult of the Sadrists reveals a basic truth: The Iranian government is not popular among Iraqi Shiites. There is not a single political party or religious authority in Iraq that openly accepts the political or religious authority of Ali Khamenei. Even the "Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq," an exile party that many observers in 2003 considered an Iranian front group, has changed its name to the "Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council." Its website features prominent pictures of the four Iraqi ayatollahs, but none of Khamenei or any other Iranian cleric. The group's rallies are said to feature loud chants of loyalty to Sistani, whom they refer to as "the crown of our heads."

It is difficult to say how much influence the ayatollahs have over political events in Iraq, although the stream of political leaders seeking meetings with them suggests that it is considerable. And while all of the ayatollahs have endorsed elections, it is not clear what they want Iraq to look like in the future or what role they wish to play in the country's politics.

What is clear is this: In the contest for religious supremacy in Iraq, the votes are in--Sistani and the other Najaf ayatollahs have won; Khamenei and the Iranians have lost.

The contest in Iran is somewhat harder to evaluate. There seminary students can be denied stipends or arrested for questioning Khamenei's right to rule. The official media impose a near-total blackout on clerics considered disloyal to the regime. But some information can still be gleaned about the relative popularity of Shiite clerics in Iran, according to Mehdi Khalaji, a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne and former BBC reporter who spent 14 years studying at Iran's Qom seminary.

In his monograph The Last Marja, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Khalaji reveals a fascinating investigation carried out annually by the Iranian government on just this question.

The manner of the investigation is simple, but can only be understood in its religious context. That context is the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca of about a million Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite. Spots on the pilgrimage are given out by lottery. Hajj pilgrims travel in organized groups, and each group has one or more administrative leaders who arrange for the physical and spiritual needs of the pilgrims under their care.

For Shiite pilgrims, these needs are also educational: In order for his pilgrimage to be valid, each pilgrim must carry out the rituals of the Hajj in accordance with the instructions of the scholar he accepts as his Marja, or personal religious authority. The leader of each Hajj group asks his pilgrims individually which scholar they view as their authority, and gives him or her a short booklet, printed by that scholar's office, explaining how to perform the Hajj.

The differences between religious authorities on the Hajj are technical, if not arcane. But by surveying Hajj leaders, Iranian authorities can get a very accurate picture of how many followers each religious authority has inside Iran. According to Khalaji, the surprising results of these surveys have been widely discussed in Iranian clerical circles: By far the most popular religious authority among Iranian Shiites is Ali Sistani. The second most popular is Hossein Ali Montazeri, a leader of the 1979 revolution who spent six years under house arrest after he publicly stated in the fall of 1997 that Khamenei is not qualified to give a fatwa.