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The Whole Najaf/Teheran Thing

There's this notion out there that since the Najaf clerical establishment (hawza, for the cool kids) doesn't support theocracy (velayat al-faqih, for the cool kids) that the regime in Teheran is very threatened by the possible emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that has warm relations with Najaf, but is not controlled by it. It's a notion that makes a lot of sense. A lot of people seem to believe it. Indeed, belief in this notion is so widespread among seemingly knowledgable people, that I'd just started taking for granted that it was true. Anyway, when I was interviewing Kenneth Pollack I asked a bunch of questions that didn't get into the printed transcript because the thing was getting too long. But he said this was wrong. I don't have the full transcript right in front of me here, but basically he said Teheran wants an Iraq that won't try and invade them and doesn't really care about this purported threat to their authority. Brad Plumer delved further into this with him today and came up with some interesting results. Seems to me, though, that Pollack is probably wrong about this.

December 18, 2004 | Permalink


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For the really cool kids, I think it's actually velayat-e faqih. My bad, I think I fucked up the preposition in my original post or something. "e" = Farsi, "al" = Arabic. No? Someone with actual knowledge on the matter could sort this out...

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Dec 18, 2004 1:22:32 AM

It is true. We don't care about invasions. We are waiting for the mothership, and it needs a landing space. In this regard Iraq will do nicely.

Posted by: Iran | Dec 18, 2004 2:08:13 AM

Ken Pollack is a rats ass of a blowhard. The head of the Saban Middle East Center admitted in Atlantic Monthly that he was wrong in advocating the Iraq invasion in a book he wrote. How can the media continue to take this guy seriously? He is still appearing regularly on CNN/CNBC/Fox as if he knew what he was talking about. Now pontificating on the need to undermine the Iranian government.

Posted by: Ralph | Dec 18, 2004 2:41:34 AM

"How can the media continue to take this guy seriously?"

Yes, well god seems to be quite popular despite the fact that he's either a) not very nice or b) doesn't exist. People are stupid, but you knew that already.

Posted by: James | Dec 18, 2004 3:18:24 AM

You're basically right, Brad, velayat e-faqih, velayat (velaya?) being the state, and faqih the supreme Islamic authority (currently, my man Khameini). Or so they tell me, and I'm feeling cooler already.

Anyways the thing about Iranian foreign policy is that's it's incredibly disunified, so it's hard to isolate "what Teheran wants". When you talk about Khameini's desire for some competition in Najaf to the Qom-based naysayers of his Islamic cred, which sounds plausible to me, it seems likely the Council of Guardians is going to take a really different stance... and the balance of power between them is always tough to ascertain.

Posted by: Ruth | Dec 18, 2004 4:00:37 AM

Seems to me, though, that Pollack is probably wrong about this.

Pollack?! Wrong?! C'mon...

Now, there ARE countervailing considerations here. MY thinks Pollack is wrong; does that mean, as a matter of raw logic, that Pollack must be right?

(Brain explodes)

Posted by: Bobo Brooks | Dec 18, 2004 8:07:40 AM

Pollack goes to great lengths in his book to describe all the bad things Iran has done, especially in Lebanon and most recently in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Yet he somehow conveniently forgot about all of that and said that invading Iraq would be a good idea and that Iran would be cooperative because it was in their interest to get rid of Saddam. So at least he's being consistent here by downplaying the whole Najaf/Qom thing. I'd like some more scholarly input on this question, but my take is that Sistani & co. are pretty much a threat to Khamenei's legitmacy because they're better scholars than he is and they've got holier sites and more followers ... on the other hand, there are a few other clerics within Iran itself who oppose velayat-e-faqih and the regime just locked 'em up. And it isn't likely that the Pasdaran would suddenly be in the thrall of a bunch of Iraqis and then ... what, support the (increasingly defunct) Iranian reformers? The real threat, I would think, would be if the Najaf hawza starts pulling in a bunch of Iranian clerics, e.g. Montazeri, and they start agitating against Khamenei and all of his heretical cronies and weakening the IRGC's loyalty to the Supreme Leader. The most interesting reversal would be if Khomenei's grandson leads the charge. Now the goofier neocon stuff, I think, has to do with Lebanese Hezb'allah suddenly becoming a bunch of pacifists who don't need to drink any of their water and just willingly cede it over to the kibbutzim.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 18, 2004 10:48:44 AM

Yes, Brad, I think you just mixed the two:

Persian: velayat-e faqih

Arabic: viliyat-al-faqih

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 18, 2004 10:53:12 AM

I agree with Ruth's comment. Pollack seems to presuppose that whatever the internal conflicts inside the Iranian government, the Iranian state manages to pull it all together and conduct its foreign policy in a coherent way based on the interests of the state. Maybe that's largely true, but surely there are power rivalries in Iran, and some parts of the government would be more concerned about a Shiite-dominated Iraq than others. And those different factions may be pursuing different agendas inside Iraq right now.

Whether a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is a threat to parts of the Iranian government would seem to depend a great deal on what kind of Iraqi state emerges. If Iraq bcomes a successful and prosperous state, with a government in which the Shiite clergy play a substantially different role than the clergy in Iran, then its hard to see how the Leader and Council of Guardians in Iran would not perceive the alternative Iraqi model of clerical participation in government as some sort of threat to their power, if only because it would provide the Iranian people with a clear alternative to the current power arrangement inside Iran.

On the other hand, I am not sure Sistani is really a threat to Khameini's legitimacy simply on the basis of the fact that Sistani is a more prominent cleric. The Iranian constitution lists three characteristics for the Leader:

1.scholarship, as required for performing the functions of mufti in different fields of fiqh,

2.Justice and piety, as required for the leadership of the Islamic Ummah,

3.right political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership. In case of multiplicity of persons fulfilling the above qualifications and conditions, the person possessing the better jurisprudential and political perspicacity will be given preference.

I don't think Khameini's legitimacy depends on being seen as the top Shiite jurisprudent in the world. He only needs to be perceived as the Iranian cleric bet qualified to lead the state.

It's not Khameini's legitimacy, but his authority which may be compromised, if the Iraqi clerics begin to criticize the Iranian government. But that's going to be an issue no matter what sort of government Iraq has, whether it is Shiite-dominated or not. If Sistani criticizes the Iranian government, I suspect many Shiites listen, no matter what degree of political power Sistani possesses.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 18, 2004 11:32:01 AM

Intersting points, Dan.

Lemme get out my copy of ye olde "An Introduction to Shi'i Islam," published in 1985, p. 298:

It may be argued that the triumph of Khomenei's views is not yet complete and several of the most influential of the traditional ulama have expressed doubts on the subject. But one of the most surprising features of the last few years has been the ease with which many of the junior ulama have felt it possible to ignoe the views of such senior figures as Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who was the most influential marj at-taqlid prior to the Revolution. Others have put into practice the idea of splitting the function of the marja at-taqlid; thus, they follow Khomenei in political matters but one of the other maraji at-taqlid in religious matters. It seems clear that among the present generation of students who are receiving training in the religious colleges at Qom, most accept Khomenei's view and the Velayat-e-faqih will become an established doctrine within the next generation.Well so much for that idea. But there does some to be precedent for the idea that Iranians would be willing to compartmentalize their religious and political allegiances.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 18, 2004 12:03:29 PM

I'm amused at the way that Najaf and Qom are being recast as some kind of Rome vs Byzantium. They're not. They're not in some kind of zero-sum competitive game of who is the best jurisprudent. They have different doctrines on the role of clerics in political life; they also hold a lot of doctrine in common.

However, statements like Matt's that "the regime in Teheran is very threatened by the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that has warm relations with Najaf, but is not controlled by it" make no sense as no such situation actually obtains ( it ain't true ). In fact given the assiduous Iranian politicking on the ground in Iraq it seems this is the outcome it is hoping for and expecting. The Iranians are doing the hard work or building relationships with a wide variety of Iraqi groups - Shia, secular Shia, Kurds etc because the end of the Sadaam regime has opened up the space for a new chapter in Iran-Iraq relations. And Teheran ( not the US )is going to win the prize.

Perhaps someone could explain how Iran has good relations with a secular shiite regime such as Syria, secular/Hindutva regimes such as India, Communist regimes such as China? Post-communist regimes such as Russia. If you were to believe the rubbish that is propagated about Iran then these would be impossible ( infidel regimes all). You're all over-theologizing the situation when it is national interests that actually count.

As one poster has noted - Iran does pursue a coherent foreign policy; this is because whatever the regime is, geopolitical facts rarely change and the state ( as opposed to the regime ) perdures. Iraq and Iran are condemned to being neighbours, they can either be hostile or they can be friendly. If Pollack says that Teheran is interested in a Baghdad that won't try to invade then he's being disingenuous. Teheran is going to get far more than that - good relations, cooperation on a variety of issues and above all a huge amount of trade. A successful and prosperous Iraq will not happen without a normalised and functioning relationship with Iran.

I've no doubt that in-between salivating at the business prospects they're having a good laugh in Teheran at all these posts on trivial ( yes, trivial - you know like Repub and Dem for example)theological differences and why Iran would rather have the last Baathist ( Allawi ) in power from people who don't know what the hell they're talking about.

I'd like to ask Dan Kervick how many times in the past 25 years Sistani has criticised the government of Iran and on what issues. ( Sistani doesn't do direct political criticism, that's the point of the Najafi school, of clerics not getting involved in politics ).

Posted by: dan | Dec 18, 2004 12:26:56 PM

A most excellent and informative discussion. Glad praktike reads the books so I don't have to. My only sideways contribution:I found this Reuters story pretty surprising:


"There is simply no one else on whom the assembly could reach consensus. Kurds would rather deal with Allawi than an Islamist Shi'ite, so would Sunnis. We also realize an Islamist Shi'ite prime minister is a red line for the Americans," said a senior official from a leading Shi'ite party.

"The Americans, the Kurds, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have red lines and Allawi is positioned to take advantage."

That the Americans have a veto; that the Shiites allow the Americans to have a veto led me to believe that the Shia are much more patient with the current situation than we have been led to believe.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 18, 2004 12:42:55 PM

"Perhaps someone could explain how Iran has good relations with a secular shiite regime such as Syria, secular/Hindutva regimes such as India, Communist regimes such as China?"

Well, do any of those countries have the equivalent of a Karbala or a Najaf?

Posted by: praktike | Dec 18, 2004 12:56:30 PM

Farsi has no definite article. The "e" in this case indicates that a word is about to be followed by something modifying it.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich | Dec 18, 2004 12:57:08 PM


You said:

I'd like to ask Dan Kervick how many times in the past 25 years Sistani has criticised the government of Iran and on what issues. ( Sistani doesn't do direct political criticism, that's the point of the Najafi school, of clerics not getting involved in politics ).

As far as I know, Sistani hasn't criticized the Iranian government. And as I said, if Sistani begins to criticize Iran, it doesn't matter what sort of political power he has.

As for the Najaf school not getting directly involved in politcs, they are certainly involved quite deeply in it right now! They may try to stay above the fray and avoid "politicking" and may seek no institutional role in the future government, but they don't seem shy about entering the political debate at some level and exerting a very strong influence on events. The "quietist" label seems inappropriate.

The Najaf clerics don't seek a state in which a cleric is the head of state. But aren't they also committed to a state governed in accordance with Islamic Law? As the leading Islamic jurists in Iraq they would surely exert tremendous influence on such a state.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 18, 2004 1:00:22 PM

Ken Pollack is a rats ass of a blowhard.... How can the media continue to take this guy seriously? He is still appearing regularly on CNN/CNBC/Fox as if he knew what he was talking about. Now pontificating on the need to undermine the Iranian government.

Er, the position that Matt just highlighted downplays the threat of the Iranian government. Did you even read the post?


Posted by: JP | Dec 18, 2004 1:42:57 PM

Dan Kervick:

That's the irony of the situation. Given the exceptional circumstances that Iraq is in, Sistani has had to enter the political fray and become a player - "elections are the way to end the occupation". Now I don't think he wants clerical rule in Iraq a la Iran; that doesn't mean that he is in any way against the regime in Iran because it's ruled by clerics. It's not an either/or situation.

However, I would really like to know under what circumstances you think Sistani would begin to criticize the Iranian government, why he would begin to intervene in the domestic politics of another country, and why you think that would be damaging or dangerous to the Iranian government if he were to do so. Personally, I think they're quite capable of taking criticism and debating it without getting their robes in a twist. And without us noticing that they're having the debate as well.

This whole discourse is schizophrenic and poorly grounded - Iranians are supposedly sick of clerical interference in politics so they're naturally going to cleave to the position of another interfering cleric?

Please note that today the Najafi establishment has been calling for the resignation of Shalaan ( the second-last Baathist and current interim Iraqi defence minister ) for his comments over Iranian support for the Sistani list.

Praktike: No they don't - but that's not the point. One thing that I'm damn sure of is that Qom, Karbala and Najaf all share a common discourse/set of practises/tradition which enables them to live with their much overemphasised differences of doctrine. They are not engaged in a power struggle with each other and they are quite capable of managing a cordial and productive relationship ( which I believe they have in fact been doing for many centuries ).

Posted by: dan | Dec 18, 2004 2:32:20 PM

I think the biggest threat to Iran's governing clerics from Iraq would be a long-term one. Suppose Iraq is eventually stabilized, and with a big infusion of US cash, and their own hard work, becomes prosperous and democratic - a huge, gigantic "suppose", I know. And suppose this future Iraq is Shiite dominated, and Islamic in principle and to a great extent in practice, but there is no institutional role for the clergy in the government. It seems to me that in such a situation, a lot of Iranians would begin to say: "Hey, Iraq is Shiite and prosperous, but has no Council of Guardians or Leader getting in the way of democratic government, messing with elections and overturning legislation. We can preserve the spirit of the Islamic revolution here without giving mullahs all the power they have now."

It seems to me then that Iran's mullahs would like to see a strongly theocratic Iraq emerge from the current mess - an outcome which is certainly a possibility. Such an Iraq would second their view about the proper form of Islamic government. Other forces in Iran, however, with some interest in decreasing the power of the mullahs, would likely prefer that a less authoritarian, less theocratic government emerge, because of its potential for strengthening their own hand down the road.

It is hard to guess what kind of role Sistani might play in the future. But suppose there are growing demonstrations in Iran for constitutional reform - demonstrations demanding a new constitution more like Iraq's, which Sistani will presumably play some role in formulating - and these demonstrations are put down quite harshly by the Iranian government. What sort of public role do you think Sistani, or other influential Iraqi Shiite clerics, would play in that situation?

The call for the registration of Shalaan is interesting, but tells us nothing about the influence or lack of influence of Iran over the diverse members of the Sistani list. Whether any given list candidate is Iran's man or independent of Iran, you can expect that he is going to want Shalaan to shut up about Iran, since either way he knows it is a provocative statement and is designed to diminish the reputation of the list among ordinary Iraqis.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 18, 2004 4:11:39 PM

Uhm... The Iran-Iraq war wasn't that long ago. Don't the Iranians sorta hate the Iraqis? Aren't Iranians conducting their own quiet little Second Great Revolution? (See accounts of students recently telling off -- and shocking the hell out of -- Khatami, etc.) The majority of the country is under the age of 30. They'll work it out by themselves.

I'm not an expert (like that rat's ass Pollack), but I regularly read Juan Cole and a couple of Iraqi and Iranian blogs. I also recommend the books "Persepolis I and II" by Marjane Strapati (sad, funny, absurd graphic novel,) for a taste of Iran.

And I believe Sistani when he argues against a theocracy for Iraq.

Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) | Dec 18, 2004 6:19:11 PM

Dan K., don't forget that Najaf could be a platform for Iranian clerics to launch their own propaganda war against Khamenei.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 18, 2004 6:56:15 PM

"Hate" is probably too strong a word for the Iranian/Iraqi situation. Rather, the Iranians and Arabs have an attitude toward each other similar to that of stereotypical French and Americans. The Iranians claim they have a better cultural tradition going back thousands of years, for example, while the Arabs take pride in speaking the language of the Qur'an and being the people of Muhammad while pointing out that their medieval literary tradition isn't so shabby. In Iran, Saddam personally gets most of the blame for the war, rather than Iraqis more generally.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich | Dec 18, 2004 7:26:25 PM

Iraqi Shia clerics seem to have at least 4 distinct connections to Iranian clerics, al-Sadr, Badrists, Dawa and al-Sistani all have their connections, (as does secular Chalabi) and whatever different schools of thought there may have, they seem to cross the border. The most prominent opponent of velayet-e-faqih is probably ayatollah Montazeri from Qom. Why al-Sistani would have more influence on Iranian opinion than Montazeri?

More importantly, what difference does it make to us if Iraq will follow Iranian model or more of a Lebanese model, where the country is multi-religious, if not multi-ethnic, and theocrats have local fiefdoms. Mind you, anti-Israeli sentiments seem to be the best unifier in all these countries. We may get a Teheran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis that would tolerate varying degrees of piety and secularism, while unified by the needs of defence against Israel --- and USA.

We had a spectacle of an Allawista prosecutor accusing a Chalabista official of illegal official contacts with Israel -- using Baath era law that makes such contacts illegal. Our own stooges hate Israel!

Posted by: piotr | Dec 19, 2004 12:48:28 AM

I've heard that while Iranian admire Montazeri's thought, he's treated as kind of a joke for other reasons.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich | Dec 19, 2004 1:14:48 PM

That the Americans have a veto; that the Shiites allow the Americans to have a veto led me to believe that the Shia are much more patient with the current situation than we have been led to believe.

Sounds like their political class are real losers born to be abused, doesn't it. Here's Gary Brecher, the war nerd, explaining why.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 19, 2004 1:50:53 PM

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