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Najaf and American Foreign Policy: Preparing for a Post-Sistani Iraq

Thursday, 15 July 2021 15:21

Iraq’s post-2003 political order can be characterized by factionalism, dysfunction, and amenability to the interests of outside forces such as the Iranians who seek to realize their own interests at the expense of a viable, independent Iraqi state. On the security front, the Islamic Republic has infiltrated key Iraqi security institutions where Iran-backed Shia militias can use the coercive power of the state to assassinate critics and violently put down protests from the Iraqi street. Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians are notoriously corrupt, and with the backing of their Iranian patrons perpetuate the sectarian spoils system—and the concomitant pilfering of state resources—that Iraqi protestors hope to overturn. Despite Iran’s ostensible domination of Iraqi politics, the regime’s ability to project power in Iraq is hindered by religious dynamics, represented by the seminaries in Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Attention to the future of Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment, an institution inextricably tied to Iraq’s political development, should be incorporated into American foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis Iraq if the United States is to realize its regional objectives of precluding the emergence of Sunni fundamentalist groups, blunting Iranian expansionism, and strengthening Iraqi civil society. 

Ayatollah Sistani, the undisputed clerical authority in Iraq and arguably the world, has consistently served as a moderating force in Iraqi politics. As Iraq descended into sectarian violence following the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in 2006, Sistani called on Iraqi Shia to exercise restraint and refrain from attacking Sunnis in retaliation. Sistani’s June 2014 fatwa mobilized the population and played a crucial role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Sistani’s political interventions, though informal and not legally binding, carry weight among Iraqi Shia by virtue of his religious and spiritual standing. Najaf serves as a theological and political counterweight to the Islamic Republic’s model of clerical rule known as the Guardianship of the Jurist. While Sistani is far from quiescent when it comes to politics, Sistani rejects the formal participation of clerics in government and prefers to exercise an informal advisory role that leaves governance to secular institutions and authorities. Sistani’s religious stature constrains Iran’s ability to propagate its own model of Shia politics within Iraq.  

However, the 90-year-old’s inevitable death will certainly leave a power vacuum. In his absence, Iran will maneuver to project its influence in Najaf, promote its vision of Islamic governance, and amplify the voices of clerical figures indifferent to the sensibilities of Iraq’s Sunni population. Iranian penetration into the seminaries of Najaf will only buttress the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing activities in Iraq. The recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the storming of the U.S. embassy, and the sectarian violence of Iranian-backed Shia militias underscore the security ramifications of Iranian influence. Already embedded into Iraq’s security apparatus, the Islamic Republic has tried to establish itself in Najaf—but to no avail. Sistani’s death may provide Iran with an inroads into one of Iraq’s most powerful, yet informal levers of power. 

The overt sectarianism of Iranian-backed Shia militias and the Maliki government contributed to the rise of ISIS by fomenting inter-communal tensions and sectarian grievances that ISIS then used to exploit disaffected Sunni populations. These same militias are now establishing political offices, undertaking security patrols, and engaging in extortion and criminal activity in Sunni and Kurdish majority areas, an alarming development that could alienate local populations and lay the foundation for the resurgence of ISIS. While Iranian-backed Shia militias and parties accentuate sectarian differences for political gain, Sistani strongly advocates for an Iraqi national identity devoid of sectarian divisions. Considering the security implications of sectarian disharmony, the United States should pay attention to the debates and trends taking place in the seminaries. Iraqi security and clerical affairs impact each other in significant ways that can assist or impede Washington’s goal of stamping out terrorism and denying ISIS the instability it needs to thrive.

The seminaries’ resistance to Iranian designs has made Najaf a reliable mediator between Baghdad and Iraqi society. The endemic corruption, political dysfunction, and inability of Iraq’s political elite to deliver basic services have galvanized protest movements demanding an overhaul of the post-2003 political order and the end of sectarian political patronage. Iranian-backed Shia militias integrated into the state’s security forces—beneficiaries of the very corruption the protestors were rallying against—violently repressed the protests, killing an estimated 500 Iraqis and wounding 19,000 by the end of 2019. Ayatollah Sistani voiced his support for the protest movement’s demands and subsequently called for the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi; he announced his resignation shortly thereafter. Without a high-ranking clerical authority willing to step in and temper the worst excesses of the state, intransigent political elites will otherwise double down on the graft, corruption, and violent repression that sustain their political fortunes. 

Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq was subsumed by his administration’s maximum pressure policy against Iran. The assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani drew the ire of Iraqi clerics and disparate Shia factions, inadvertently uniting different groups in the shared mission of expelling U.S. troops, as evinced by condemnations from Ayatollah Sistani, the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and leaders of Iranian-backed Shia parties and militias. The strike shifted the conversation from the protests to the larger geopolitical showdown between the United States and Iran, a development that bolstered Iran’s narrative of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy and overshadowed the demands of Iraqi youth. Escalating regional tensions amid a potential clerical succession in Najaf can create a space for anti-American clerics in a post-Sistani Iraq, restraining Washington’s ability to operate.

The Biden administration should focus its energies on helping the new government in Baghdad deliver tangible results on the issues of political reform, economic development, and basic services. These perennial problems are the conduits through which the Iranians project power and expand their malign influence. The interplay of clerical politics and Iraq’s domestic governance issues is a dynamic that will have long-term implications for American strategy vis-à-vis Iraq, Iranian regional policy, counterterrorism, and most importantly, the realization of Iraqi aspirations for a life of dignity and security. A militarized foreign policy in Iraq isolates the United States and ties the hands of its allies in Baghdad, leaving it ill-prepared to affect change in a post-Sistani Iraq where deft diplomacy and a coherent strategy will determine the efficacy of American engagement in the country. 

Source: The International Affairs Review