Iran and Iraq Are Competing Over Leadership of Shiite Islam After Sistani

While many fear authority might shift from Najaf to Tehran and Qom, the grand ayatollah’s legacy is likely to prove more durable than this allows

Iran and Iraq Are Competing Over Leadership of Shiite Islam After Sistani
Fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces carry a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. (Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images)

Shortly after dawn on Feb. 22, 2006, explosions tore through the Askari Shrine, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam, in Samarra, Iraq. Al Qaeda was the culprit, and the attack seemed designed to spark communal violence at a time of grave insecurity in the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, anti-Sunni reprisals began immediately in Baghdad, and the situation became more serious by the hour. As Iran-backed groups clamored to strike back at Sunni targets and start a broader war, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — the leader of Iraqi Shiite Muslims, and one of the most influential clerics in the world — stayed their hand. Crowds had gathered outside Sistani’s home in Najaf, the Shiite holy city, demanding that he give his blessing for them to fight against the Sunni extremists. Sistani refused and instead released a statement, read out by a representative to the crowds from the nearby Imam Ali Shrine. The statement denounced the attacks and called for peaceful protests, but warned believers against being dragged into sectarian strife. This did not quell public anger; across Iraq demonstrations were emerging calling for a robust response to the sacrilege committed by al Qaeda.

Tribal leaders from several provinces traveled to Najaf on the morning of the attack, along with hundreds of armed men, seeking an audience with Sistani to plead their case for mobilizing to defend the holy shrines. Sistani received them out of respect for their previous support during his standoff with Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority regarding the Iraqi Constitution and elections. He asked the tribal sheikhs why they wanted to deploy their kin to Samarra and other locations. They answered that it was for self-defense and to prevent further attacks against Shiite communities. Sistani’s response is instructive regarding his attitude toward the state, an attitude he maintained many years later during the Islamic State group’s surge of 2014. He said: “If you want security and to protect your people then you should tell your sons to join the security forces and help the government uphold the rule of law.”

More delegations arrived at Sistani’s home throughout the day to petition the ayatollah for a stronger response. One delegation, made up of paramilitary commanders who answered to Qasem Soleimani, the then-head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, responsible for Iranian policy in Iraq, was particularly insistent. The commanders implored Sistani to issue a fatwa mobilizing defense forces, stating they had the means and support to deploy thousands of armed men to Samarra and the other shrines. Sistani refused, explaining that this was exactly what al Qaeda wanted — to create a trap and ignite an all-out conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. The delegation continued to press Sistani, hinting that it might turn to other senior religious leaders in Najaf or even seek a fatwa from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to green-light a mobilization in the name of religion.

Sistani asked for patience. He would not give an instant response to an issue of such magnitude and told the group to wait until later in the day for a decisive course of action. He then instructed his son, Muhammad Ridha, to invite the other three senior ayatollahs in Najaf for an urgent meeting.

Clearly, the delegation’s veiled threat to circumvent Sistani made him uneasy, especially because the commanders had indicated they were willing to turn to Tehran to override Najaf’s religious authority. Sitting on simple carpets in the corner of his reception room, Sistani conferred with the other ayatollahs. They had backed him up until now as the first among equals, the most senior ayatollah in Iraq, who spoke for Iraq’s Shiites, and he wanted to ensure they would have a united stance at such a dangerous moment.

Sistani’s diplomatic approach worked. The other ayatollahs assured him of their continued support and that no fatwa of any kind would be issued on the matter despite the petitions each of them had already received. In this way, Sistani ensured that Najaf was united and that it — and not Tehran — would provide leadership to Iraq’s Shiites. His refusal to sanction the deployment of militias, even in the most dire circumstances, helped prevent a full-scale civil war breaking out and cemented Najaf’s position in the new Iraq.

It was but one of many instances in the last few decades when Sistani, famed for his learnedness, pushed for a pragmatic, measured and principled response to current events. His approach stands in stark contrast to the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iran: Where Iran’s clerics believe in direct clerical rule and often push for muscular interventions, Sistani has championed people power and stability throughout an era of remarkable volatility.

Sistani is approaching 94 years of age, and Iraqis and Shiites everywhere are wondering what comes next. Will the model of direct clerical rule that Iran espouses come to dominate the Shiite world? Or will Sistani, who has no obvious successor, manage to bequeath his pro-democratic philosophy to a new generation?

My new political biography, “God’s Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani” (2023) shows that Sistani’s legacy goes beyond ideas and extends to networks and institutions that have enduring power. This legacy makes it likely that his vision will last — though the contest between the Iranian and Iraqi conceptions of Shiite Islam may only grow more heated in the years to come.

The Samarra episode highlighted the competition between the two main centers of Shiite religious authority, with Sistani leading one side, Khamenei the other. Some two decades later, the two poles in Iraq and Iran remain distinct in terms of their political philosophies. One of the hallmarks of Iran’s aspirations in the Middle East is its appeal for support from Shiite Muslims, who have long been a persecuted minority. Since the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian state has cultivated ties across the region in countries with significant Shiite populations, hoping to be the standard bearer for Shiite Muslims across the world. While Iran’s attractiveness dimmed somewhat after Ruhollah Khomeini’s passing in 1989, for nearly three decades it remained the sole state in the world where Shiite Muslims held power.

However, Iran’s ambitions and resources have not gone unchallenged. Traditionally, Shiites around the world have actually looked to Iraq, where the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, Najaf, and its Islamic seminary, the “hawza,” have been the source of religious leadership. There, the senior jurists (known by the title “marja,” meaning “guide” or “grand ayatollah”) have maintained a centuries-old form of authority that has avoided formalizing a role for religion in politics. This contrasts with the recent approach of Tehran to politics — that of a theocratic state based on the Khomeinist version of “wilayat al-faqih” or “guardianship of the jurist.” As famous as the Iranian espousal of Islamic government by clerical rule has become, it has long been — and remains — in the minority among Shiite theologians and jurists across history.

In Najaf, Sistani has been the most senior marja since 1993. He is reclusive and lives an ascetic lifestyle akin to how clerics might have lived in medieval times. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sistani endured virtual house arrest and was severely restricted from exercising his role as the religious leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim population. The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 dramatically changed Sistani’s circumstances and presented him with an opportunity to provide leadership for the Shiites in Iraq and beyond.

Since Sistani has long rejected a formal role for clerics in government, his stance contrasts with that of Tehran, and for over 20 years now there has been a competition between the Najaf seminary and the Iranian regime for the hearts and minds of Shiite Muslims. This competition has mostly played out in Iraq, where Iran has attempted to increase its presence in Najaf by sponsoring seminary students, investing in construction projects in the shrine cities and building up a network of armed groups with political and religious loyalties to Khamenei. But Tehran has not been able to circumvent Sistani, whose quiet approach to politics in Iraq has won him admirers and led Iranians to question their own political system.

Sistani’s differing view of wilayat al-faqih and his rivalry with Iran’s Islamic Republic is partly due to interpretation of Islamic legal theory. But it is also a result of the reach and practices of the institution of Iran’s supreme leader. Not only is Sistani adamant that Iraq’s context is not suitable for an Islamic government — he also does not want Iran’s Islamic government to encroach on Iraq or for it to attempt to encourage a similar system to develop. In fact, Sistani has even described himself as a safeguard against the emergence of an Iran-style theocracy in Iraq: “As long as I am alive, the Iranian experience will not be repeated in Iraq,” he said in 2004.

While Sistani is careful not to publicly criticize Iran’s system or comment on Iranian political affairs (even though he is an Iranian citizen), clerics from the hawza of Najaf are clear that it does not support the Iranian model. This gives Tehran a particular problem for two main reasons: The first is that there is a marja who is senior to Khamenei who has more followers and even more international influence, who can limit Khamenei’s authority outside Iran. The second is that Sistani can affect the views of Iranian citizens, who can now clearly see an alternate model for the role of a marja in an Islamic society — a guide and not a ruler, and one who seems to be more successful and accepted by the people. This second point is one reason Sistani has many followers inside Iran, and why the school of Najaf remains the more appealing model to so many Shiite Muslims in Iran and elsewhere.

This rivalry is why Iran has worked to influence Najaf and sees possibilities to expand its position there after Sistani’s death. Khamenei has maintained an office in Najaf since 2004, and his current representative in Iraq, Mujtaba Hussaini, has overseen a campaign to recruit more students into Iran-aligned schools, giving much larger stipends to students than the Najaf hawza. A few years ago, Iran attempted to place Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary and a confidante of Khamenei, as a marja in Najaf who recognized Khamenei’s authority. Iran has supported multiple religious leaders, groups and movements in Iraq since 2003, which have, in return, attempted to undermine Sistani’s authority and influence. This extends to political groups that look to Tehran rather than Najaf for religious and political guidance — some reacting to perceived negative treatment from Sistani. Recently, Kazem al-Haeri, an Iraqi marja resident in Qom, asked the Shiites to submit to Khamenei’s authority. These moves and many others are tactical attempts to reaffirm the authority of the Iranian supreme leader in Iraq and other countries, as part of the powers of the guardian jurist.

However, Iranian officials have also been careful to appear publicly respectful of Sistani — including Khamenei himself (on several occasions), heads of government and ministers, and key officials. This show of respect signals their realization that Sistani’s authority and position is almost impossible to challenge. In one example, Iran had to accept that Nouri al-Maliki would not be able to remain as prime minister when he was forced out by Sistani in 2014. The more crucial strategic period for Iran will be after Sistani’s death, at which point Tehran may be able to exert more influence and perhaps shape the emergence of the next maraji.

But Sistani has already taken steps to mitigate such an attempt. First, he has increased the numbers of students and teachers in the hawza of Najaf and raised the prestige of classes at schools there by investing in facilities, stipends and so on. Second, control of the shrines and a massive increase in their activities, finances and capabilities makes Iraq more of a natural capital for the world’s Shiites. Third, Iraqi law on Shiite endowments makes specific reference to the supreme marja in Najaf, which negates the potential for religious authority to be imposed from Iran. And the law states that the shrines fall under the control of Najaf, which makes it impossible for maraji in Iran to control them, and thus limits their potential role in Iraq.

Despite all this competition and disagreement on the scope of religious authority, it is still easy to overstate the rivalry between Sistani and Khamenei, or that between Najaf and Tehran. There are many points of agreement on religious affairs, politics and other matters. The relationships between the maraji in Iraq and Iran are extensive, and the networks are overlapping and mostly cooperative. For example, see the recent visit by the head of the seminaries in Iran to Sistani. Iran has publicly praised Sistani’s leadership in Iraq, knowing that without him, Shiite power — and by extension the potential for Iranian influence — would have been far weaker.

And as far as there is a rivalry, Najaf is in a strong position. The holy city’s model for clerical authority and its leadership have endured more than 1,000 years of tests. More likely than not, Najaf will continue to thrive in the coming years. In contrast, the model of Islamic government in Iran has linked the authority of a marja to the political fortunes of the state and thus is more likely to face severe challenges in the future.

An important distinction should be made between what Sistani believes is applicable and suitable for the context and conditions of post-2003 Iraq, and his general theory on governance. This distinction reflects the methodology of Shiite jurists: They exercise much intellectual freedom in their teachings and research but are more restricted in their practice.

Sistani’s views on Iraq should be understood in the context of current conditions rather than as expressing a timeless or universal view. As a jurist, Sistani has a political ideology rooted in Islamic law, but this describes a general theory of governance in a completely Islamic society and is not applicable in Iraq’s current circumstances. When asked whether an Islamic government in Iraq should be based on wilayat al-faqih, Sistani’s response has been that it is not feasible — not that he does not believe in it.

Sistani has never disclosed his political ideology, and it is difficult to infer it from his teachings, as there is limited information on his views. However, his political views on post-2003 Iraq are clearer, and though he has not explicitly articulated his approach or given it a definition, it is possible to explain it concisely based on his public comments. According to Sistani’s representative in Beirut, “Sistani’s attitude towards authority is better understood through his practices, rather than his legal theories.” Some clerics see the marjaiyya’s role in political affairs as being akin to that of a doctor, intervening in moments of crisis, or acting as a spiritual father when needed.

During 2003 and 2004, Sistani stated many times that the form of governance in Iraq should be determined by the Iraqi people. This is the core of his view: that the people’s will and sovereignty are the source of legitimacy for the political system. Sistani believes his role is to support the people in making clear their will and to help create the conditions for them to express it.

This pillar of people’s sovereignty in Sistani’s political theory for Iraq is what several writers have termed “wilayat al-umma” (“authority of the people,” in contrast to wilayat al-faqih) or, more accurately, “iradat al-umma” (“will of the people”). It asserts the people’s right and authority to choose a system of governance that they see fits their circumstances. When people make their choices it legitimizes the state, and the outcomes of those choices must be adhered to. Because of the history of authoritarianism in Iraq, it was logical that people would choose a democratic system. Given that the majority are Muslims, it is natural that they want a state that respects Islamic values and principles. This is why Sistani pushed for a constitution written by Iraqis chosen through elections — he was sure of the outcome.

When asked in August 2003 about what kind of political system Sistani saw as being fit for Iraq, Sistani responded: “A system that adopts the principle of consultation, pluralism, and respect for the rights of all citizens.” The consultation, or “shura,” referred to here is a mechanism to discover the will of the majority, a key part of representative democracy. Sistani believes elections and parliamentary democracy are the most suitable methods of government for Iraq.

Sistani’s many statements and positions in the 2005-20 period show that he wants a vibrant parliament chosen through elections, which produces an inclusive but majoritarian government that is strong and capable of enforcing the rule of law. Several times, he warned of autocratic tendencies and called on parliament to fulfill its responsibilities by creating the right legislation and holding the executive to account. He also advised Iraqis many times to choose the most suitable representatives in parliament based on their capabilities and integrity. Sistani’s approach is born out of what the political sociologist Larry Diamond has termed his “sincere belief in the political legitimacy of a social contract between rulers and ruled.”

Sistani’s iradat al-umma gives people the freedom to make their own choices, but also to accept responsibility for those choices. The will of the people is predicated on constitutionalism and free expression of majority will through elections. Once people have agreed on a constitution and chosen a parliament that legislates and elects a government, people are bound to follow the process or change it as they see fit within those confines. That is why Sistani sees his role as being not to interfere but to guide, so that people make suitable choices — or, if they make poor choices, they must rectify the outcomes by themselves. This perspective of Sistani’s is evident in his statements when he supports the right to protest and calls on the political elite to listen to people’s demands.

Interestingly, Sistani has never used the terms “democracy” and “secular” or “civil state,” as they do not conform to the language and tradition of Shiite jurisprudence, though democracy and civil rights are mentioned prominently in the constitution Sistani supported. As noted in earlier sections, Sistani is a strong proponent of equality for Iraqis and civil rights, and for the protection and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities. The Iraqi Constitution reflects these ideals, but they are not effectively practiced, which is why Sistani has chided the political elite.

However, Sistani’s views on these matters do not mean that he is a liberal and supports maximal freedoms that are not in line with Islamic values. It could be said that Sistani proposes a distinct politics that is neither about liberal democracy and secularity, nor postliberal and postsecular democracy. Yet there is not enough evidence to speculate further.

As for the role of Islam, Sistani does not advocate for an Islamic political system, but rather for a government that respects Islamic principles and values, which usually means a government that does not violate Islamic law. As long as there is no contravention of Islam, the marja needs only to guide and advise. This stance can also be considered a form of veto power on the political process, in which the marja intervenes only if Islam is being violated. This condition is based on the reality of Iraq, a Muslim-majority country, and it is unknown what Sistani’s view would be if Iraq were not so. However, at several moments, Sistani has resisted increasing Islamization or introducing sharia laws and practices. For example, the sharia courts established by the Sadrists in Najaf in 2004 were disbanded by Sistani after he retook control of the Imam Ali Shrine, and he was critical of the Jafari personal status law proposed in 2014 and 2017 as “violating the rights of all components of the Iraqi people” because it would treat Shiite Iraqis differently from other Iraqis and contravene several laws and conventions. Sistani opposed this law despite it being more in line with Shiite jurisprudence than the existing personal status law.

In summary, Sistani’s “will of the people” is part of a vision of Iraq as a civil state bound by a constitution and laws that underpin representative parliamentary democracy, but a state that also respects the principles and values of Islam, as chosen by the people themselves. It promotes democratic principles and the democratic process on condition that they do not contravene Islamic values. It does not call for secularism — or for an Islamic government or theocracy. Sistani’s view is that because the people make their choices freely, they are bound by them, and it is not for the marja to take away any authority from them or to take on any responsibility for their choices, or a role in the state.

As I explain in my book, Sistani’s impact on Iraq is underappreciated and his efforts to keep Iraq from completely falling apart deserve more recognition. Several important chapters in Iraq’s history bear Sistani’s fingerprints, such as his opposition to the American plan to impose a government and constitution on Iraq, his push for elections as early as possible so Iraqis could determine their own future, his refusal to sanction reprisals as the sectarian civil war escalated in 2006, his fatwa to urge volunteers to fight back against the Islamic State in 2014, and his calls for the removal of prime ministers who had lost the public’s trust due to weak and corrupt governments.

Sistani has created a paradigm for what a marja should be. The six main features of this paradigm are: 1) avoiding formal involvement in politics; 2) ensuring the Iraqi people’s sovereignty is paramount and that their wishes are freely expressed; 3) offering guidance to politicians but not allying with any of them; 4) maintaining the power and prestige of the marjaiyya by exerting control over the shrines and the hawza and not intervening in every public issue; 5) acting as a leader for all Iraqis and in all their interests regardless of religion or ethnicity; and 6) only intervening in politics when the “structure of society” is under threat or to tackle the most serious issues the state faces.

For Shiite Muslim communities, Sistani is a source of pride. He renews their faith in religious leadership and shows that it is possible to hold religious, ethnic, national and other identities concurrently in the modern world. In Iraq, his defense of constitutional democracy and vital political interventions has allowed a state to be established, though Sistani pushes for progressive reforms. For Iraqis, Sistani provided moral leadership during difficult times and, in the words of writer Hassan Abbas, “helped Iraq cope with the trauma of the Saddam Hussein era and then survive the jihadist brutality after 2003 and the Islamic State’s reign of terror.” What might be called the Sistani paradigm shows how a marja should carry out his obligations in a diverse nation-state and in a manner that promotes respect for freedoms, equality, rights and sovereignty.

Everyone who has met Sistani in person and conversed with him has come away impressed with his knowledge, insights and wisdom, and charmed by his warm and welcoming demeanor. He has endured much to protect his integrity, which is why he is widely viewed as “holy, credible and powerful,” in the words of The New York Times. Those who have assessed his role believe he has been central to preventing Iraq from completely collapsing into all-out chaos or civil war. His interventions in Iraq have led prominent commentators to call for him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Sistani actively tries to limit their influence in Iraq, both the United States and Iran are glad he is there, because of the stability he provides, and worry about what will happen after he is gone. When Sistani underwent surgery in January 2020, both U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sent get-well messages.

The major criticisms of Sistani since 2003 have focused on three topics: his role in politics in Iraq, his hegemony of the marjaiyya and his tendency toward reclusiveness.

As regards his role in politics, some Sunni, Kurdish and secular Iraqi politicians believe that he has unfairly used his influence to secure Shiite Islamist primacy at crucial times. They have variously criticized Sistani’s backing for the United Iraqi Alliance in 2005, support for several prime ministers, the 2014 fatwa that led to the creation of the state-sponsored paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, and his general support for promoting conservative Islam in the state, including the constitution and in legislation.

Reformists and civil activists also see Sistani as a protector of the current political system who should have done more to support reform efforts, particularly in response to the widespread protests that began in October 2019.

Critics of Sistani’s political role also claim that while he helped create the current political system in Iraq, he has been unable to force it to adapt. In this view, he bears some responsibility for the country’s precarious situation. And in Najaf, while Sistani is widely respected and supported, some clerics discreetly question whether he has been too involved in politics, while others pose the opposite question of whether he has been involved or decisive enough. Even some senior Shiite politicians who benefited from Sistani’s role believe he should refocus on religious issues. Two of these politicians, who held key government positions for several years, told me that what they viewed as Sistani’s populist tactics, expressed through Friday prayer speeches, were inappropriate interference in political matters.

The second type of criticism, regarding Sistani’s hegemony over the marjaiyya, focuses particularly on his control of the shrines. This control has led to the marginalization of the other maraji, and has made Sistani by far the most powerful marja of his time, and perhaps ever. This power, combined with the lion’s share of followers in the Shiite world, is unprecedented. Sistani’s supremacy as marja has placed him, for some time, at a higher level than any past version of the primus-inter-pares supreme marja. Some consider this to have created an imbalance in the marjaiyya and concentrated too much power in Sistani’s hands and that of his network. When discussing an issue about extremist Shiite preachers with one of the maraji in Najaf in 2013, he told me that he could not do much because everything is conditional on Sistani acting, and deferring to him on almost every issue has become the default. The fear is that the concentration of power and resources could destabilize the marjaiyya as an institution and will make the transition harder after Sistani dies, as multiple maraji compete for his position. There is also a concern that Sistani’s power has squeezed out the space for criticism, dissent, differing opinions and objective evaluation of the marjaiyya’s performance.

The third type of criticism of Sistani focuses on the fact that he has not been a public figure or provided the kind of public-facing religious leadership that his predecessors did. The general expectation was that Sistani would lead prayers in person, teach large classes of students, visit communities, deliver speeches on important occasions and be more accessible to Shiite Muslims. Instead, Sistani has delegated these tasks, partly because he is not comfortable appearing and speaking in public, but also so that the marjaiyya looks more institutionalized.

His secluded approach may have been warranted during Saddam’s regime, but some critics feel the more available attitude of the other great maraji is what is needed in the present time. Sistani’s general absence from the social life of the hawza, such as important religious commemorations, and significant events such as the funerals of maraji and senior clerics, can give the impression that he does not care much for those types of relationships. Sistani does not make any effort to address these criticisms. But it is notable that his son, Muhammad Ridha, has been much more socially active in the past few years.

This criticism may not have much effect on Sistani’s legacy, but being aware of such views is important to give his marjaiyya context and to note that not all Iraqis are enraptured followers of Sistani or agree with his actions.

So when Sistani is gone, will there be a seamless transition to a successor, or is the situation more complicated?

Sistani’s stature is so great that it is almost impossible to imagine a replacement. And it is possible that the Iranian state could try to wrangle leadership from Najaf and present Khamenei or his successor as the leader of Shiite Muslims globally, including those in Iraq. Iraq is currently struggling with preventing Iran-U.S. tensions from playing out inside its borders. Baghdad has not been able to isolate Iraq from the war in Gaza and has failed to restrain militia groups from conducting attacks against U.S. forces stationed in Iraq. At the same time, it is clear that Iran is trying to increase its influence over religion in Iraq and convince Shiite Iraqis that only Tehran can provide the right leadership in such turbulent times. At the moment, Sistani stands in their way — but Tehran will keep trying.

The question of whether the marjaiyya could move to Qom is moot — it will remain in Najaf, even though, after Sistani dies, there may be more senior maraji in Iran than in Najaf. Najaf has historically been the seat of Shiite clerical authority for the majority of history, even when it comes to affairs in Iran, such as the Constitutional Revolution in the first decade of the 20th century. The hawza of Qom also generally favors Najaf’s clerical authority over the Iranian state’s wilayat al-faqih. Additionally, even if no supreme marjaiyya appears in Najaf, clerical authority over Iraq’s Shiites cannot emanate from Iran, especially when it comes to political affairs and the management of shrines and the hawza.

On the other hand, Khamenei is himself 85 years old and is constantly rumored to be struggling with his health. It may be that Sistani outlives Khamenei, which would make it much more difficult for the Iranian regime to exert influence over Najaf after Sistani’s eventual passing. What’s more, Sistani’s unique influence may extend to the next generation of religious leadership. His approach of focusing clerics on their religious duties rather than on becoming political overlords, and his personal asceticism at a time when corruption and authoritarianism is a plague across the Middle East, will retain enduring respect.

As “God’s Man in Iraq” shows, Sistani is unlikely to ever be properly replaced. But his legacy, which I have described as the “Sistani paradigm,” is a highly important guide for any future marja in Najaf, and ensures that his successors have a clear path through which to navigate the role of religion in politics. While it may not suit Iran that the Iraqi version of Shiite Islam is ever more ascendant, the fact remains that Sistani and whoever comes after him will, more likely than not, keep Najaf as the Shiite capital, along with Sistani’s philosophy — rather than pivoting to Tehran and its model of direct clerical rule.

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