Taking into account the remarkable mushrooming of outlandish theories about Shiism at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003 it is unsurprising that something similar should occur today, when Iran – home to the biggest Shiite population in the world – is showing signs of an ongoing political revolution.
Back in 2003, neoconservative optimists were in the lead. Among them was Amir Taheri, who in The Wall Street Journal on 7 April – on the basis of an alleged satellite phone conversation with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – declared the imminence of a “schismatic” Shiite movement whereby a Najaf model of Iraqi Shiism that “steered clear of politics and focused on the ethics of the theological discourse”, assisted by the liberating force of “American marines”, would finally bring an end to the influence of Khomeini in the region. Even more optimistic were the adherents of the theory of an “Akhbari revolution”, according to which a few hundred thousand Iraqis of this tiny sub-sect concentrated in the far south of Iraq would single-handedly convert Iraq’s Shiites to a pro-American position.
Today, after the Obama administration inherited the Iraq conflict with its regional entanglements, it is a more heterogeneous set of commentators that cheer on the American attempts at dialogue with the Shiite world. One exponent is Roger Cohen, who in a recent op-ed in The New York Times conjured up yet another vision of a benign Shiite revolution that will supposedly blow through the region with wonderful consequences for American interests. Briefly put, in Cohen’s view, there is a close link between the political thinking of the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri (in Qom) and that of the Iraq-based Sistani. In Cohen’s interpretation, the Iraqi experience gives reason to hope for a diffusion of ideas from Iraq to Iran and a concomitant “reformist” transformation of the Islamic republic whereby the Iran clergy would once more adopt an innocuous position on the sidelines as mere “moral authorities”, without undue interference in politics.
Cohen’s piece is flawed, both for what it says about Montazeri as well as for its assumptions about Sistani. First, Cohen greatly exaggerates the extent to which Montazeri really abandoned the idea of clerical supervision of Iranian politics. According to Cohen, “[Montazeri] later apologised for his role in the establishment of the position [of wilayat al-faqih or the rule of the supreme jurisprudent] and argued that he had conceived of it as exercising moral rather than executive authority”. It is true that Montazeri in 1997 and again in 2000 voiced criticism of the particular way in which wilayat al-faqih had been implemented in Iran under Khamenei after Khomeini’s death. But Montazeri never abandoned the concept as such. Quite the contrary, Montazeri confirmed the idea of clerical supervision to guarantee the Islamic nature of Iranian society (nezarat-e faqih), and as an antidote to Khamenei – whom he considered a scholarly nonentity – he advocated that the traditional clergy should recoup authority through winning back the faqih position (albeit in an office that would be limited by time and confirmed by a popular vote). In a recent interview, Montazeri’s son confirmed that his late father’s position on wilayat al-faqih had remained essentially the same throughout the last decade.
Cohen also suggests that Iran should build on the Montazeri legacy and “look west to the holy Shiite cities in Iraq… from which Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani exercises precisely the kind of moral authority and suasion – without direct executive authority – that Montazeri favoured for Iran.” He even calls for “a Persian Sistani”! The latter, apparently deliberate, use of “Persian” instead of “Iranian” comes across as possibly somewhat more amusing than intended: Surely Cohen must know that Sistani is Persian, and that, by way of contrast, many leading Iranian clerics are in fact Azeri Turks? At any rate, two more basic clarifications are in order here. Firstly, there is a big difference between Montazeri and Sistani with respect to how they view the exact role of the clergy in “supervising” society. Whilst they share the concept of “supervision” (for example, on 27 April 2006, Sistani issued a statement to the effect that he would monitor (raqaba) the performance of the government), Montazeri was always more willing than Sistani has ever been to institutionalise this kind of clerical control. Secondly, Sistani’s reluctance to institutionalise power should not be interpreted as a cession of authority (or, even more implausibly, as a decision to remain aloof from politics altogether). Cohen seems to be unaware about the extent to which Sistani considers himself to be above the law of the land in Iraq and the 2005 constitution, as seen for example in the idea of clerical supervision formulated in April 2006, and again on 18 November 2008, when Sistani suddenly invented a requirement for a special majority in the Iraqi parliament for the SOFA to pass (“approval by all the components of the Iraqi people and their principal political forces”).
Moreover, even if the modalities of Sistani’s interference in Iraqi politics are less specific and not as readily defined as those of Montazeri, the potential of his authority has been clearly shown on numerous occasions – including most recently through the implementation of Islamic regulations against alcohol in some Iraqi cities in 2009. At the same time though, while Sistani’s preference for giving orders from the sidelines may shield him from the disadvantages of “routinised charisma” in the Weberian sense, it also makes him more vulnerable to exploitation by political forces (who can more easily construe his actions and statements in ways that suit their own agendas). Much like in 2004, there is today evidence that both the Iranian regime as well as some Iraqi parties are still hoping that Sistani may be a useful tool for reunifying the dispersed Shiite parties under a nominally “nationalist” and “anti-sectarian” umbrella – whether before or after the 2010 elections – as exemplified through the latest rush of public statements indicating renewed possibilities for rapprochement between the Daawa and Hakim and Sadr after a visit by Maliki to Sistani in Najaf.
These facts also have wider implications for the overall rosy scenario painted by Cohen in his piece. Westerners often tend to forget exactly what sort of conservative values these venerated clerics would like to see implemented in the countries where they live – and the preparedness of their followers to follow through on their edicts. We have already had a taste of this in Afghanistan, where last April the Western prosecutors of the “good war” rather abruptly discovered that the “progressive” regime of Hamid Karzai (which had defeated the “medieval” rule of the Taliban) in fact counted among its key allies Shiite clerics who wanted to push through laws that gave Shiite Afghan men the unconditional right to sexual intercourse with their wives every four days. The point here is that these Afghan Shiite clerics are not in any sense marginal loners in Shiite jurisprudence. In fact, Sistani’s own website makes it perfectly clear how he sees marital “obligations”, including how the wife should make herself available to the husband for “sexual enjoyment” and also follow his orders when it comes to leaving the house (on the other hand, housekeeping chores are specifically exempted).
In Roger Cohen’s conclusion, “Shiite Iran is not America’s enemy; Sunni Al Qaeda is, whether in Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan”. Black and white; Sunni is bad and Shiite is good. True, there are many reasons to hope for some kind of change in Tehran. But realistic contemplation of what is likely to replace the current regime and the potential complexities of any future transition – and their possible regional repercussions – should also form part of that kind of exercise.