November 22, 2007

Petitioning Iran

Iranian interference in southern Iraq has more than just the Americans demanding its cessation. A petition drive protesting the mullahcracy's involvement in violence has garnered over 300,000 signatures, including hundreds of leading Shi'ite clerics. The message -- get out now (via CapQ reader Bill N):

More than 300,000 Iraqis including 600 Shi'ite tribal leaders have signed a petition accusing Iran of sowing "disorder" in southern Iraq, a group of sheikhs involved in the campaign said.

The sheikhs showed Reuters two thick bundles of notes which contained original signatures. The sheikhs said more than 300,000 people had signed the pages.

Such a public and organized display of animosity toward neighboring Shi'ite Iran is rare in Iraq. Iranian influence has grown steadily, especially in the predominantly Shi'ite south, since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"More than 300,000 people from the southern provinces condemned the interference of the Iranian regime in Iraq and especially in spreading security disorder in the provinces," the sheikhs said in a statement.

Many people assumed that the natural affinity between Shi'ites in both countries would create an opportunity for Iranian hegemony in the south. Perhaps the Iranians assumed that as well; they certainly have acted to control the south through puppets like Moqtada al-Sadr and prior ties to Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi reaction shows that assumption to be rather simplistic and overstated.

Two factors work against such influence. First, Iraqis are primarily Arabs, and Iranians are Persians. The differences between the two go much farther back in history than Islam, and the cultural differences are significant. Neither group abides dominance by the other with much patience, and the violent imposition of Iranian will in the south only exacerbates the issue.

Secondly and more subtly, the two groups practice two different variants of Shi'ism. The Iranians have a Qom-based Shi'ite theology, one that insists on the fusion of theology and governance. Ruhollah Khomeini exemplified the Qom school, as did his Iranian revolution. Ali Sistani in Iraq comes from the Najaf school, the so-called "quiet" Shi'ite theology, one that separates theology from governance. Sistani has resisted involvement in Iraqi governance for this reason, preferring a more subtle form of leadership -- one that Iraqi Shi'ites know and practice themselves.

The Iraqis do not want Iranian-style Islamic rule in the south, especially the tribal leaders who stand the most to lose in such a system. The Arabic nature of the tribal system does not translate into the Iranian model of Shi'ism, and the tribal leaders would have to cede their authority to the imams. None of the tribal leaders in southern Iraq will suffer that gladly.

The petition drive reminds us that Iraqis and Iranians may well build a strategic and economic alliance, as neighboring nations must to enhance stability, but they remain very different in basic ways. The Iraqis who signed the petition just reminded the Iranians of that as well.

UPDATE: CapQ reader Shavan makes an interesting observation by e-mail:

It's quite debatable that there is a quietist school vs. an activist school: Shi'ism per se had become politically quietiest over time given Sunni dominance, and also due to theology. Khomeini developed his own activism in the sixties, esp. in opposition to the Shah, and which was not necessarily shared by others in Qom. (see, "The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran", Roy Mottahedeh). Khomeini also used to lecture in al-Najaf, and his ideas on vilayat-i faqih were articulated therein (see, "Islam and Revolution", Ayatollah Khomeini, tr. Hamid Algar). Scholars/students used to study at both al-Najaf and Qom, and absorbed teachings from both schools. Even under the last Shah and Saddam, exchanges always took place. A tenet of Shi'ism is the following of a qualified mujtahid; thus, people attach themselves to the ideas of a mujtahid (Tabatabai'i, Khomeini, Sistani, et. al.), but not necessarily a school (as w/Sunni Islam, e.g., Hanafi, Hanbali, etc.). Sistani has developed his own brand of activism, and partly in opposition to Khomeini. Indeed, as Ervand Abrahaminian notes, Khomeini's ideas are best described as "Khomeinism" (title of Ervand's book).

As a practical matter, Sistani still exemplifies a "quietist" approach, while the mullahs in Iran follow Khomeinism. Given how badly Sadr and the Khomeinists in Iraq have stumbled, it appears Sistani's winning the argument in his home country, and Iran is failing to extend its influence.


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