WASHINGTON, March 26, 2015 – Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani of Iraq made a clear declaration on March 13, 2015: Iraq refuses to be part of an “Iranian Empire.”
In a recent interview Ali Younesi, special adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and ex-chief of Iranian Intelligence, described the expansion of the “Iranian Empire.” He stated that Iraq is under the scope of Iranian authority and Baghdad is the capital of the revived empire, as it once was in the past.
Younesi, a liberal on the Iranian political spectrum, did not find much public support for his comments. Instead, he was sharply criticized by conservatives throughout Iran as “irresponsible.” Ali Akbar Vilayati, international affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, emphasized in a letter that Iran respects the sovereignty of all nations, especially its neighbors.
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Vilayati, however, signed the letter as the head of an Iranian social institution instead of as adviser to the supreme leader. This would suggest that he did not want his repudiation to be understood as representing any official stance.
Still, Younesi’s statements are by no means untenable. Such sentiments are backed by a long history between the two nations. For centuries, Iraq has been a battleground for conflicts, both direct and by proxy, between Iran and its rivals. Today may be no different.
Concern with Iran’s “hegemonic” tendencies has been expressed to the United States by its allies in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, criticized the recent Tikrit offensive, pointing to it as an indication of Iran’s worrying ambitions, according to a New York Times report.
Iraqi Leadership Condemns Iranian Statements
The foreign minister of Iraq, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, condemned the statements that came out of Iran, also characterizing the remarks as “irresponsible.” Al-Jaafari stressed that, even though Iraq has “positive relations with neighboring countries including Iran,” it will not allow any country to compromise its national sovereignty.
On March 13 Ayatollah Sistani issued a statement denouncing claims that threatened Iraqi sovereignty, implicitly calling out Younesi. Sayyid Ahmad Al-Safi, an official representative of Sistani, read the statement during his Friday sermon at the Shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala, Iraq. The shrine is one of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims.
“We are proud of our country, our identity, our independence and sovereignty. If we welcome any assistance offered to us from our friends and neighbors to fight terrorism, which we thank them for, that absolutely does not warrant turning a blind eye to our identity and our independence,” stated Al-Safi.
Based in Najaf, Iraq, Ayatullah Sistani is Iraq’s top religious authority for Shia Muslims. Najaf is home to the Shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Imam Ali is Shia Islam’s first imam (leader) after Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (head of state) in Sunni Islam.
Beyond being an Islamic holy site, Najaf’s significance comes as an unassuming power center in the Middle East. As the primary center of religious learning for Shia Muslims it is the source of spiritual leadership for Shia Muslims worldwide. Its decisions and decrees influence the socio-political landscape of regions wherever Shia Muslims are present.
Al-Safi continued, “We will not be victim to any false perceptions held by officials near or far. We write our history with the blood of our martyrs and wounded soldiers in the battles against the terrorists. This blood has mixed with the blood of every part of [Iraqi] society in all of its diversity.”
These statements, a clear show of Najaf’s policy and vision for Iraq, have been critical in confronting foreign influences, including neighboring Iran. Though both Iran and Iraq are predominantly Shia, they are separate states with separate interests. Those interests overlap at times, as with other neighboring states, more for reasons of strategy than for sectarian identity. Persistent characterizations of the region through sectarian narratives can easily ignore this basic reality.
The Struggle of a Weak Iraqi Government
In response to the ISIS takeover of Mosul in June of last year, Ayatollah Sistani effectively tipped the scale with his unprecedented fatwa for “jihad against ISIS.” He called on all able-bodied Iraqis, regardless of sect or ethnicity, to join Iraq’s military to defend Iraq’s sovereignty. This was a theme that Najaf stressed in promoting national identity and civic duty as opposed to sectarian loyalty or allegiance.
Though thousands answered the call and within days formed what became known as al-Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces), the frail Iraqi military was unable to manage the large numbers. A missed opportunity for the Iraqi government arguably was seized by Iran since most volunteers ended up joining the Iranian-backed militias. Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, which was stressed as being distinct from the militias, is now the umbrella label for the militias fighting ISIS in Iraq.
Thus, some may argue that the fatwa inadvertently enfranchised the rise of Iranian-backed Shia militias. Still, Sistani’s office continues to emphasize the necessity for a strong national military in the long-term vision of defending Iraq even though the militias continue to lead in the fight against ISIS.
Human rights abuses have been reported against some of the militias, which have also been condemned by the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi stated that such crimes will not be tolerated and justice will be brought against the culprits.
Ayatollah Sistani issued statements stressing that Popular Mobilization volunteers must be conscientious of their moral and civic duties during their tours. He urged them to practice restraint, protect human lives and respect the human rights of all Iraqis regardless of sect or ethnicity.
Timing of Statements and the Tikrit Offensive
Iranian commanders and strategists, including IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani, have been on the ground in Iraq in the fight against ISIS. Their presence has been effective in scaling back the terrorist group, but nonetheless has brought much controversy. Though Iraqi forces have their own commanders on the ground in the offensives against ISIS, the presence of Qassem Suleimani continues to garner the lion’s share of attention and credit for Iran.
The timing of Younesi’s controversial remarks came in the midst of the offensive on Tikrit – a crucial event in the battle against ISIS. It supports the growing contentions that victories against ISIS are mostly credited to Iranian leadership and strategy. So a victory in Tikrit is more a victory for Iran than a triumph for Iraq.
Even though Ayatollah Sistani is Iranian-born himself, his policies have continued to support a sovereign Iraq. The government continues to welcome support from Iran, as an effective partner in fighting ISIS. Though Iran is a tactful partner in fighting the terrorist group, the Iraqi government must have a strategy for what comes after ISIS.
The rule of law, accountable institutions, a strong national military, effective police forces — all need to be a priority from now for the government. The religious leadership in Iraq and the Iraqi people aspire to a true sovereign republic. The government in Baghdad cannot afford to ignore these sentiments.