Shia leadership struggle ahead after Khamenei and Sistani

Portraits of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (L)

When Grand Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi died in Qom in 1962, he had been un­disputed marja al-taqlid (pre-eminent guide) among Shia Muslims for 15 years. With no clear successor, two distinct camps emerged among the Shias, the ma­jority following Grand Ayatollah Mohsin Hakim, based in Najaf, and others looking to a more junior but increasing active Iranian cleric, Aya­tollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
According to writer Moojan Momen, Khomeini’s rise was “prob­ably unique in [Shia] history… (as) he projected himself into the top-ranking echelon of maraj’i al-taqlid by his political appeal to the mass­es”.
Khomeini’s activism against the shah of Iran gathered pace after the quietist Borujerdi died and led to wilayat al-faqih, his notion of cleri­cal rule that shaped Iran’s Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, based in Najaf, and Ayatollah Ali Khame­nei, leader of the Islamic Republic, are today’s successors to Hakim and Khomeini. Despite instances of co­operation or compromise, including Nuri al-Maliki’s removal as prime minister in 2014, they offer differing political philosophies.
Sistani is 86 and Khamenei 77, meaning that the not-too-distant future promises tussles first to suc­ceed them and then between their successors.
The roles of the two are poles apart. Khamenei heads the Iranian state, makes important public ap­pointments and commands Iran’s armed forces. Sistani has eschewed any direct political role in Iraq, al­though his views when expressed — pressing the United States for the 2005 elections, calling on Iraqis in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), among them — have had huge ef­fects.
Sistani’s death is more likely to create a vacuum, given there is no formal means to replace him. By contrast, a new Iranian leader would be quickly appointed by vote of the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of 88 clerics.
“The transition from Sistani to the next leading grand ayatollah may take weeks, months, or years,” wrote Hayder al-Khoei, research director of the London-based Cen­tre for Academic Shia Studies and member of the Najafi clerical family.
“Unlike the Catholic Church, where cardinals meet at the Vatican to cast secret ballots until the next pope is elected, the process in Najaf is much more fluid, vague and in­cludes both top-down and bottom-up pressures… (But) there only ex­ist a handful of clerics today senior enough to take Sistani’s place,” Khoei wrote in a September paper.
Khoei narrowed Sistani’s possible successors to Ayatollah Muhammed Saeed al-Hakim, Ayatollah Mu­hammed Ishaq al-Fayadh and Aya­tollah Bashir Hussein al-Najafi, all based in Najaf.
Even so, the succession could be gradual. It took six years (1992-98) for Sistani to replace Grand Ayatol­lah Abdulqasim al-Khoei.
There is also an international di­mension, as Sistani’s following goes well beyond Iraq. Some Shias follow a marja on personal matters while looking to Khamenei for a politi­cal lead and within Iran the grand ayatollahs — who include Hossein Vahid Khorasani, aged 96, Lotfol­lah Safi Golpaygani, 98, and Nassr Makarem Shirazi, 90 — take varying views of the Islamic Republic.
Perhaps the majority of Shias — at least outside Iran — follow Sistani as a safe, non-political cleric. “Even if Shias have a local imam, when asked who they emulate, many outside Iran say Sistani,” said Elana DeLozier, chief executive officer of the Sage Institute for Foreign Af­fairs.
“In general, many of the most no­table local Shia clerics in the region support Sistani. The late Lebanese marja Mohammad Hussein Fadlal­lah reportedly backed Sistani at one time.
“Saudi cleric Hassan al-Saffar has openly said he supports Sistani and Ali Salman of Bahrain reportedly noted privately that he tended to follow Sistani.
“Of course, there are others who follow Khamenei, such as Hassan Nasrallah [leader of Lebanon’s Hez­bollah] or who follow other regional marjas,” DeLozier observed.
She portrays an open future for the Shias. “The question is: After Sistani, where does their support go?” she said. “Does Shia emulation become more dispersed? Do more follow Iran or do they stick with a Najaf cleric?
“Sistani was not an obvious choice and the next may not be ei­ther. The organic selection process means we have no clear predictive ability. And, of course, Sistani is just one question: What happens after Khamenei in Iran?”
Khamenei’s clerical standing is disputed. A 1994 statement from the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom that he should be regarded as a marja was rejected by leading Ira­nian ayatollahs, leading Khamenei to renounce the role within Iran but not outside it.
However, his international ap­peal rests on a political outlook expressed in an axis of resistance, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syr­ian President Bashar Assad, militant Palestinian groups and some Shias in the Gulf.
Hence the fears of Sunni rulers in the Gulf and among many Iraqi Shi­as that Sistani’s death will encour­age Iranian efforts to expand influ­ence in Iraq and elsewhere.
The rivalry between the heirs of Hakim and Khomeini is set to con­tinue.
- Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
- Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly.