NAJAF, Iraq — When a senior Iranian cleric announced last month that he was planning to move to this holy Shiite city to open an office, the furor that erupted offered a glimpse into the future of a complicated relationship.
As American troops leave Iraq, Iran certainly ranks high among the beneficiaries of their nearly nine-year presence. As a Shiite power that suffered enormously during an eight-year war with a Sunni-dominated Iraq in the 1980s, Iran now can generally count on closer ties with a friendly Shiite government next door.
But the biggest winners of all have been Iraqi Shiites, whose ascent to power reversed nearly 1,400 years of sometimes brutal Sunni domination. And although Iraqi Shiites broadly welcome the departure of the Americans, they seem in no mood to substitute one form of foreign domination for another — and least of all, they say, from Iran.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, the site of its holiest shrine and a base for a new form of Iraqi nationalism, one that asserts the doctrines and rituals of the Shiite faith but also embraces a distinct Iraqi identity.
“Do you know who in Iraq hates Iran more than anyone? It is Najaf,” said Neama al-Ebadi, director of the Najaf-based Iraq Center for Research and Studies, echoing a view widely expressed on the streets of the city.
“The Shiites of Iran are Iranian first. They think they’re superior to Arabs. But Najafis believe they are the original Shiites and the Iranians are just copies.”
Under the stewardship of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Najaf’s religious authorities, or marjaya, have become a beacon of moderation for the newly established Shiite order. The authorities have moved firmly to assert their quietist school of Shiite religious thought, under which the clerics are expected to merely advise rather than participate in politics, as they do in Iran.
So the announcement last month that Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a prominent ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a leading proponent of the Iranian “wilayat al-faqih” theory of governance, intended to move to Najaf was greeted with gasps of dismay, not only in Najaf but also beyond.
Shahroudi’s credentials, as the head of Iran’s judiciary until last year, and the timing of the announcement, just weeks before U.S. troops complete their withdrawal, seemed to leave little doubt that the move represented a bid by Iran to step up its role in Iraq as American influence wanes, said Babak Rahimi, professor of religious studies at the University of California at San Diego.
Rahimi said that although Shahroudi was born in Iraq, he has spent many years in Iran, and “many Iraqis see this guy as having an Iranian agenda. Shahroudi is a part of the Iranian establishment, and it looks like a strategy to manipulate the Iraqi Shiites.”
Najaf did not roll out the welcome mat, however. Instead, in the shadow of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, the narrow alleys of this ancient city were abuzz with speculation that Iran is hoping to promote Shahroudi as a potential successor to the octogenarian Sistani, who is regarded as the leading religious authority for Shiites around the world.
Sistani’s status means that his pronouncements on just about everything, from whom to vote for in Iraq’s first democratic election about six years ago to whether it is permissible under Shiite religious law to eat a McDonald’s hamburger (yes, but only if the outlet’s owner is Muslim), are regarded as sacrosanct.
But with an office in Najaf, Shahroudi would have a platform to voice competing views. He would be able to teach, distribute scholarships to the religious students who swarm into the city to study at its hallowed hawzas, or seminaries, and perhaps instill in Najaf the same doctrines of governance that prevail in Iran.
Sistani was reported to be furious. He instructed his followers not to meet with any of Shahroudi’s representatives. And after Sistani declined to send a representative to the inauguration of the office, ahead of the ayatollah’s arrival from Iran, other Najaf clerics also distanced themselves from Shahroudi, confided one of the robed, white-turbaned religious students who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The reaction pointed to the difficulty Iran would confront if it attempts to fill the vacuum left by the departing Americans, despite U.S. and Iraqi concerns that it will do so.
“The Iranians would put their feet in every Iraqi shoe if the Iraqis let them. Religion, politics, everything,” Ebadi said. “But we won’t accept to let them do what they like, and especially here in Najaf.”
“It’s impossible,” agreed businessman Farhan Abu Chich, 57, who is among those who have prospered from Najaf’s renaissance since the Americans arrived. “Iraqis will never fall under influence of either the Iranians or the Arabs.”
In 2003, Chich owned one dingy hotel in the old city, on which he hung a sign in English, Press Hotel, in the hope of luring American guests. The hotel was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike in 2004, but he rebuilt it and instead drew Iranian pilgrims, who have been flooding into Najaf at the rate of 20,000 a day in recent years to pray at the Imam Ali shrine.
He boasts 100 percent year-round occupancy and is building three more hotels. But he pours scorn on those to whom he owes his wealth. Turkey is the biggest investor in Najaf, and local businessmen shun Iranian goods, preferring to do business with Turkey as well as other Asian and European nations, he says.
Chich described a visit in the summer by an Iranian government minister, who he said appealed unsuccessfully to a gathering of Najafi businessmen to spend more of the profits they earn from Iranian pilgrims on buying Iranian products.
“We told him, frankly, you don’t have what we need,” Chich recalled. “There’s a problem with goods from Iran. They are part of the Third World.’’