"Shahroudi possesses strong Iraqi credentials and yet relates well to the Islamic Republic's official narrative . . . somewhat like Sistani in reverse," Anoushiravan Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University explained. Because Iran's maximalist brand of Shiism hasn't yet secured much hold in quietist Iraq, Shahroudi's cross-border background could facilitate Iran's buy-in. According to Ehteshami, Iran is not only positioning its own man at a time when the Sistani succession debate is becoming increasingly relevant but also testing the waters for Iraqi reactions.
Yet Shahroudi faces formidable obstacles in his undeclared quest. Having spent the latter half of his life as a key figure in revolutionary Iran, he is widely perceived to be an outsider, politically tainted and excessively militant. "Even if Shahroudi becomes a full-fledged marja, it is unlikely that anyone after Sistani will attain the same stature," said Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University's Iranian Studies department.
In mainstream Twelver Shiism, worshippers are free to choose their own source of emulation so that the position of paramount marja can likewise only be decided by popular consensus. If Shahroudi were to succeed in indigenizing his clerical clout, there is still little guarantee that he would be popularly considered marja-e-taqlid, let alone fill Sistani’s shoes. Moreover, Iraq's Shia remain sharply divided along faultlines that extend beyond the hostility between Najaf's clerics and the Baghdad government. Some therefore believe that promoting Shahroudi at least dovetails with al-Maliki's longer-term intentions to sideline the current marjayat, or traditional religious leadership. In a 2006 study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, analyst and former Qom seminarian Mehdi Khalaji noted that as a result of successful Iranian cooptation and politicization of Shiite clerical networks, "Sistani may well be the last traditional [marja] not only in Iraq but also in the Shiite world."
As our phone conversation drew to a close, Professor Milani added that "in the longer haul, Iraqi nationalism will determine the character of Iraqi Shiism, or in other words mellat [nation] over ummat [the transnational community of the faithful].”
Iran’s Trump Card
Given the ecumenical preeminence of Iraq's Shiite holy places and marjayat, a post-Sistani order yoked to Iran's powerful body politic could bring about a radical realignment in an arc stretching from Lebanon through Bahrain to Pakistan and India—and a far stronger diplomatic hand for Tehran. Iranian hard cash and soft power continue to make inroads into countries with significant Shiite communities such as neighboring Afghanistan, where it now controls a third of the media, and Lebanon, where overeager infrastructure financing suggests it may be bracing itself for the fall of the House of Assad, its embattled Syrian ally. As Paul McGeough wrote recently, the Sistani transition also threatens to undo everything Washington has invested—including some five thousand soldiers' lives—in part to steer Iraq away from the Islamic Republic's embrace.
Of course, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi's alleged designs on Iraq's marjayat isn't quite yet a foregone conclusion. But even if near-impeccable clerical credentials and financial largesse fail to win the hearts and minds of Iraq’s Shia, Shahroudi could always set his sights on the office of Iran's third supreme leader. Whatever happens, Khamenei’s protégé will shape the region’s landscape for years to come.
Kevjn Lim is an independent, Middle East-based writer and contributing analyst at Open Briefing: The Civil Society Intelligence Agency.