Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Roger Cohen and the Sistani-Montazeri-AfPak Fantasy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 5 January 2010 15:56

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.

[Some of the arguments in this piece have been elaborated with full quotations etc. in a previous paper on Sistani available here, and in a recent article in SAIS Review.]

15 Responses to “Roger Cohen and the Sistani-Montazeri-AfPak Fantasy”

  1. Salah said

    The case of Roger Cohen presents a tangled mix of psychology and ideology combined with journalistic pretense. In Cohen’s world, George Bush’s “with-us-or-against-us school in Washington”… [ ]

  2. Wladimir said

    Excellent article. Separating fiction from facts. It’s a surprise for me that Maliki is possible returning back to Shia alliance backed by Iran. He was praised by Martin Indyk as an non-Iranian player in 2008 (small report on his speech here: )

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Thanks. I think the only constant right now is that Maliki is searching for potential coalition partners. Already, due to personality issues, and with help of the Americans, he has more or less excluded rapprochement with Iraqiyya and Unity of Iraq – an alliance that could have made sense in ideological terms. That leaves him with alternatives that I think are more decentralist (the Kurds) and/or pro-Iranian (the “Watani” coalition) than Maliki would have preferred.

    Also, I think the Sistani/Islamist dimension should be of particular interest to the Kurds. Looking at the mostly secular orientation of the Kurds, one would expect them to do better with moderate Iraqi nationalists in the long run. I think they ignore the danger that Shiite Islamists who nominally support decentralisation today may be transformed to centralist Islamists in the future.

  4. bb said

    Roger Cohen should read up on the reformist fundamentalist theocracy John Calvin established in Geneva, mid 16th C, and then he might better understand the Iranian Islamic revolution and be able to put a context to it. Sistani is a product of that revolution.

    What is interesting about the shia is that the Iranian republic has a democratic component/base to it, just as Calvin’s theocacy had. Stands in contrast to the Sunni Islamists eg Taleban.

  5. Salah said

    Sistani is a product of that revolution.

    I don’t know what you meant by he is a product of that revolution?

    Sistani was a student very close to Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei who was was under house arrest by the Iraqi government, after his death Sistani came.

    His rise to eminence began when he moved to Najaf in 1952. There he studied with some of the most important Shiite clerics of the time, including the Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul Qassim al-Khoei, a major figure in the quietest tradition. When Khoei died in 1992, Sistani was selected by his peers to head the most important hawza—or network of schools—in Najaf.

    So he is not a product of that revolution as Mullah produced from Khomeini as such.

    Sistani some how was soft with Saddam regime all time.

  6. “Already, due to personality issues, and with help of the Americans, he has more or less excluded rapprochement with Iraqiyya and Unity of Iraq”

    What is the favourite American outcome of the next Iraqi elections?

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, that is a good question, but one I should not pretend to know a whole lot about. After all, I am trying to follow Iraqi politics rather than the mysteries of Washington!

    Anyway, I should at least stress once more that the above observation about Maliki and the nationalists – and the American role in bringing about estrangement between them – is not based on the assumption of a deliberate American plot against Iraqi nationalism. Still, whatever their intentions may be, Odierno again and again caves in to the Kurdish definition of “disputed territories”, Biden asks Maliki to not be critical of the Kurds, and American politicians travel in droves to visit Barzani, all of which makes it virtually impossible for Maliki to be a friend of the Obama administration and a successful Iraqi nationalist at the same time.

    In other words, deliberately or not, Washington appears to be pushing towards a result that could look very similar to 2005, with the Kurds, Tawafuq, Maliki and the “Watani” Shiite coalition as potential partners. I think the Americans might try to spin this kind of result as a wonderful success (with Maliki or some other figure posing as the “independent Iraqi Shiite force” or even a “buffer against Iran” or something to that kind of effect), even though this is of course precisely the sort of outcome that would suit the Iranian regime best. Today there are even disturbing rumours that some of the more sectarian forces among the Shiites will make good on their threats to use the de-Baathification committee (many of whose members have particularly close ties to Iran) to disqualify Salih al-Mutlak and Hiwar from taking part in the elections altogether, just to be on the safe side it seems! For now though, this too remains speculation; it seems unlikely that we will know for sure until the IHEC releases the candidate lists.

  8. Salah said

    with Maliki or some other figure posing as the “independent Iraqi Shiite force” or even a “buffer against Iran” or something to that kind of effect)

    Reidar, I think Maliki lost a lot of his creditability to distance himself from Iran and been seen more “independent/nationalists” after mishandling Al-Fakah oil field problem. although there are many things including his cover-up of the corruptions of his folks.

    As for Washington, I think US trying to balance things between the different US friendly political elements in today Iraq even if not been perfect or accepted by Iraqis but US see that outcome as a win situation for her.

    But we should not undermined next election process with the voting most probably there will some manipulations/rigging/ missing counting votes etc…

  9. Salah said

    This may give you the recent Maliki how he deals with Iran.

    واضاف سيادته خلال المؤتمر الصحفي الذي عقده بعد ظهر اليوم : ” هناك طلب عفو قدم من رئاسة مجلس الوزراء من اجل شمول 33 إيراني بالعفو الخاص وقد ذكر مساعد وزير الخارجية الإيراني أن هذا الموضوع معلق بتوقيع السيد طارق الهاشمي نائب رئيس الجمهورية ” .

  10. Salah said

    القائمة العراقية: تهدد بالانسحاب من العملية السياسية في حال اصرار الحكومة على ابعاد صالح المطلك

  11. bb said

    Salah. To clarify.

    When I wrote GA Sistani was a “product” of the shia Iranian revolution what
    I mean’t was that his views were recognisable to me within the spectrum and context of an ME Muslim world having been confronted with external, global imperatives to modernise from the 20th/21st century.

    My post was about that same context having applied in the 16thC when the global (in western terms: in yours, today, muslim) catholic church was coping with similar econmic-driven imperatives. These pressures culminated in Calvin founding a radical protestant theocratic state in Geneva. Key component is: Calvin’s theocracy rested on the the principle of consent of the people (albeit in a restricted sense) and eventually led to modernisation/secularisaton of christian catholic ancien regime world.

    Having studied Calvin/Geneva when at school, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in mid 20th C, either shia or Sunni driven, at the time (to me – 80s) was easily explicable in religious/historical terms. Provided of course, one was conversant with religous/political history! Recognised Iranian shia revolution as likely Calvinist/protestant because of its similar democratic-election component.

    What have observed since 1979 is confirmation that it is the shia arm of Islam that has acted more like “calvinist” modernisers, while the Sunni fundamentalist jihadi arm has behaved more like book burning Savanarolists whenever they achieve power – eg Taliban and AlqI.

    As result I place Sistani in the spectrum as a Shiite moderniser.

  12. Wladimir said

    It’s a bit ahistorical to compare different religious movement with a different historical and cultural background. I don’t see any resemblances in veli faqih and protestants/calvin, as a ‘bachelor student’ of both Iranian and Dutch history.

  13. Salah said

    Thanks for your view, I must say I more to the view of Wladimir in your take about all ME religious side.

    In ME we have two extremists’ sides of Islam, Iran from 1979 and Saudi from 1891, both the push to far extreme side of Islam.

    If you visited most Arab places there more open and accepted practises as “religious practise” like Iraq Egypt, Jordan Lebanon Tunisia, and another places.

    What you should be a ware here is that Islam heavily impediment of local culture and customs, to give you one example in Egypt and Sudan they have female genital mutilation which common practice in other African countries but there is none in Koran or Sharia’a in regards to this practise.

    The fact is ME/Muslim world need to spread literature and education for better understanding their religious this will limits the hands religious element from using the public for their self necessities in their goals. This as we saw with Khomeini revolution which he then mobilise a nation for a war, also Saudi which produces Bin Laden and other extremists groups in all the places were Saudis had in the past spread their religious Madrassa in Pakistan, Thailand, Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia.

    As by saying “Sistani in the spectrum as a Shiite moderniser” I think this single sided western view, as Sistani represent and support the west in their goals, but the reality on the ground Bb, women in Iraq and all the society drown by Sistani and his group with what they brought back from Iran with unIslamic practises and customs, may be you need to read and study what Ashora practice they brought to Iraq which was gone for years and people in southern Iraq start to live their modern life.
    What we most Iraqi see after the invasion is a huge downing of women rights human rights with very supportive Mullah/ religious group who they are happy to employs this for their self necessities goals and start the lead of illiterates generation so they can build new scarcity exactly like before 16thC when the global (in western terms) when people like Galileo and scientist killed just when the said some scientific words publicly.

    The bright think here the Koran have had a lot of teaching in this side, but people killed due to political or /religious claims not for scientific rezones.

  14. bb said

    Wladimir: Of course there are different cultural and historical elements. But the Islamic (reforming) fundamentalist challenge to the status quo appeared on the scene at roughly the same time in the chronology of Islam as it did in Christianity – ie at the 1400 – 1500 years mark.

    And the context of both movements was external pressure to modernise and secularise driven by economic imperatives. (Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and R.H. Tawney “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”)

    The Iranian revolution established the first fundamentalist Islamic state. Calvin established the first funamentalist christian theocracy. It is quite interesting to read and compare the structures of government in both states, especially Calvin’s Consistory and the Iranian special clerical court. And of course both states have a democratic base, albeit restricted. I remember at the time wondering if Khomeini had been reading up on Calvin during his Paris exile.

  15. Salah said

    The new Iraqi passport requirement, looks still the women downward after 7 years of liberation and democratisation of Iraq we hear from these “elected” governments.

    – يتوجب على المرأة العراقية غير المتزوجة إستحصال موافقة ولي أمرها على منحها جواز السفر على أن يقدم ولي الأمر مستمسكاته الثبوتية وحضوره شخصيا إلى دائرة الجوازات الفرعية لغرض اخذ البصمة الحية .

    4- يتوجب على المرأة العراقية المتزوجة إستحصال موافقة زوجها على منحها جواز السفر بعد أن يقدم زوجها مستمسكاته الثبوتية وحضوره شخصيا إلى دائرة الجوازات الفرعية لغرض اخذ البصمة الحية .

    5- يتوجب على المرأة العراقية دون سن الرشد إستحصال موافقة ولي أمرها على منحها جواز سفر على أن يقدم ولي الأمر مستمسكاته الثبوتية وحضوره شخصيا إلى دائرة الجوازات الفرعية لغرض اخذ البصمة الحية .

    6- على المرأة العراقية الأرملة أو المطلقة إستحصال موافقة ولي أمرها على منحها جواز سفر على أن يقدم ولي الأمر مستمسكاته الثبوتية وحضوره شخصيا إلى دائرة الجوازات الفرعية لغرض اخذ البصمة الحية

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