Iran seeks to expand influence in Najaf

By Faris Omran


Iraqis are seen reciting the Qur'an in the holy city of Najaf on May 4th. [Photo courtesy of the Attaba al-Ilwiya Facebook page]

Iran has been seeking to impose its hegemony over Shia religious authority in Iraq by expanding its influence in the holy city of Najaf, experts told Diyaruna.

Najaf, a centre of Shia political and religious power, is renowned as the site of the burial place of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. Is home to one of the sect's most important seminaries and serves as a place of pilgrimage for Shia worldwide.

By funding religious schools and charities and nurturing ties with scholars in Najaf, Iran has sought to win influence among the Shia hierarchy, experts said.

The Islamic Republic also has been promoting the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) in Najaf and throughout the region, which calls for allegiance to al-Wali al-Faqih -- Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.


Iraqis gather to listen to a sermon given by a cleric in Najaf. [Photo courtesy of Attaba al-Ilwiya Facebook page]

“The Shia religious authority in Najaf is an ancient traditional institution whose ideological structure is not easy to influence or change under any circumstance," said Ghaith al-Tamimi, a researcher in Islamic thought and former cleric at the Najaf seminary.

Khamenei's office, however, is "undertaking great efforts and spending significant sums of money to achieve this objective", he told Diyaruna.

Iranian officials seek to establish influence through "building religious schools and centres and supporting students at the [Najaf] seminary and providing school supplies and books", he said.

But religious authorities in Najaf do not welcome Iran's ideological influence and largely reject the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih, he said.

Attempts to exert influence

Al-Tamimi, who spent 20 years teaching at Najaf seminary and studied with its most prominent clerical authorities, said Iranian influence in Najaf is limited.

The four main authorities in Najaf, as well as the secondary authorities and most of the teachers "are not close to Iran" or Khamenei, he said.

Iran’s attempts to position a successor to Ali al-Sistani will fail, he said, as it has failed before in finding a successor to al-Sistani, "who is the most influential Shia religious authority in Iraq".

Iran sought in 2011 to position Mahmoud Hashemi al-Shahroudi in Najaf as a potential successor to al-Sistani, but officials at the seminary "rejected these efforts and managed to finally quell them", al-Tamimi said.

"Due to my experience having lived through important historical periods of the Najaf seminary, I know it is not easy for Iran or others to install their own religious figure as a replacement for al-Sistani," he said.

Al-Shahroudi died in December, and with his passing, Iran "no longer has any figure left from the seminary of the Iranian city of Qom who can compete for the position of the supreme spiritual leader in Iraq", he said.

The Qom seminary does not control Iraqi religious authorities, he noted.

Opposition to Wilayat al-Faqih

Iran has sought for decades to expand its influence in Najaf, said Issam al-Fayli, who teaches political sciences at al-Mustansiriyah University.

“Iran considers Najaf the spiritual capital of Shiism, and is always trying to throw around its weight there through financial aid and funding of religious schools and sponsoring students to study at the seminary," he told Diyaruna.

But Iran is unable to impose its control over Najaf for several reasons, he said, primarily because "al-Sistani is far removed from the Iranian approach and strongly opposes the Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine".

Other religious leaders based in Najaf with wide-scale popular bases also oppose Iran's influence and ideology, al-Fayli said.

Iraq's Shia community "retains a religious identity and historical specificity that would not accept Iranian submission regardless of [Iran's] influence”, he said.

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