Traditionally, the Qom-based clergy supports Khamenei, and the Najaf-based clergy supports Sistani while sharing mutual respect. In a global context, Sistani enjoys the rank of the ‘Supreme Religious Authority’ of the worldwide Shi’ite community, owing to his association with Najaf and his relatively senior age (at ninety-three years old, he is ten years older than Khamenei). Solely out of respect, no clergyman challenges Sistani’s position, however, unlike Khamenei’s position, which is constitutionalised and supported by the Iranian state’s institutions, Sistani’s rank lacks institutionalisation as he holds no political office.
Furthermore, as the head of the state, Khamenei has stretched his influence worldwide, which has likewise resulted in an expansion of Iranian influence. In fact, the spiritual leaders of Bahraini and Nigerian Shi’ite communities, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem and Ayatollah Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, respectively, both share deep bonds with the Qom seminary and consider Khamenei to be their leader. In Lebanon, as well, Hezbollah considers Khamenei to be its spiritual leader and follows his edicts. More significantly, in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia where the Shi’ites are in the majority, Iran’s influence and Khamenei’s following are immense. The rise of pro-Iran Sheikh Al-Nimr and his execution by Saudi authorities in 2016 only exacerbated the situation in Shi’ite dominated regions of the kingdom. Although, the current Saudi Shi’ite leader, Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar, is conciliatory and moderate in his approach, decades of marginalisation and discrimination have led to the encroachment of Iranian influence inside Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite community[viii]. Similarly, across the Indian subcontinent, the influence of the Iranian Revolution has provoked Shi’ite political activism. In Pakistan, the ‘Shia Ulema Council’ shares deep ties with the senior clergy of both Iran and Iraq. Its current head, Allama Syed Sajid Ali Naqvi, is the member of the executive council of the Iran-based ‘Ahlul Bait World Assembly,’ the platform the global Shi’ite clergy use to coordinate their affairs. In India, on the other hand, Khamenei’s following is strong in the Ladakh region through the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT), while various senior Indian-Shi’ite clergymen like Maulana Kalbe Jawad and Ayatollah Aqeel ul Gharavi have been in close association with Khamenei and Qom-based clergy.
The triumph of Khomeini’s concept of Wilayat e-Faqih in Iran led to the mobilisation of Shi’ite masses and the rising influence of Shi’ite clergy across the region. Iran, therefore, provides the opportunity for global Shi’ite clergy to assert their authority and strengthen Shi’ite populations that have traditionally remained politically alienated. The institution of Maraji holds the key for Iran to further its influence since the Khamenei’s following often overlaps with Iran’s influence in the region. While the Iranian Revolution has certainly empowered Shi’ite communities and clergy worldwide, it is also true that, in religious terms, Khamenei and Iran still lag behind Sistani’s global following.
Certainly, the Najaf-based clergy under Sistani has been successful in maintaining its distinctive status vis-à-vis Iran. Previously, Iran had tried to install Ayatollah Sayyid Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi in Najaf to assume leadership in the post-Sistani era, however, he died in 2018. Today, Haeri’s support for Khamenei once again aided Iran in asserting its influence inside Iraq and Najaf. One major feature from which Iran could benefit is the absence of any high-stature Maraji inside Najaf who could replace Sistani. Out of the ‘Four Greats of Najaf,’ Grand Ayatollah Saeed ul Hakim died in 2021 while the other two high ranking clergymen, Grand Ayatollah Basheer Najafi (Pakistan) and Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayyadh (Afghanistan), face hurdles due to their advanced age and non-Iraqi ethnicity. It is speculated that in the post-Sistani period, while Najaf would be struggling amid a successorship crisis, Iranian inputs would be paramount. Already Iran enjoys wide influence over Iraq’s political and security apparatus through various mid-rank clergymen like Ammar Al-Hakim, Qais Al-Khazali and Akram Al-Kaabi, all of whom lead their respective political and militant factions, and favour Khamenei’s authority.
Finally, various Ayatollahs like that of Muhammad Baqir Al-Irawani (a close aide to Sistani), Riyad Al-Hakim (Iranian-based Iraqi scholar) and Hasan Al-Jawahiri are the prominent candidates to lead the post-Sistani era – yet none of them have yet acquired the status of Maraji. Therefore, given such challenges, it remains to be seen whether Iran will succeed in reshaping Najaf’s discourse to its benefit, or if Najaf will persist as a distinctly independent seat within global Shi’ism.