Iraqi Shiism could topple the mullahs

Posted in Iraq | 24-Mar-05 | Author: Cameron Khosrowshahi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Dealing with Iran I

WASHINGTON At the start of the last century, some time before World War I, my grandfather left his native Iran for Najaf, Iraq. It was a common journey back then for the young and religious-minded in Iran, eager for guidance.

The Shiite centers of learning were located in the shrine cities of Iraq, where the brightest theologians of their time taught in numerous seminaries. This Shiite base outside Iran became one of the critical factors in the downfall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which culminated in the Islamic revolution in 1979. The religious classes had a network of followers and funding that existed beyond the reach of the Pahlavi state, which could never completely crush their opposition. Back then, Iraq contained the seeds of upheaval in neighboring Iran. Today, it does so once again.

American policy makers are understandably concerned with the rise of the Shiite community to political dominance in Iraq, particularly now with the candidacy of the seemingly pro-Iranian Ibrahim al Jaafari for prime minister. America does not want another Iran in the region, particularly as the Islamic Republic presses its nuclear ambitions.

At the same time, viable options against the mullahs are limited. While Europe and America are more united than ever on a diplomatic approach, their package of incentives is far from certain to be accepted. It will be difficult to convince Iran to completely give up a nuclear program that has broadly become a source of national pride.

Even if an agreement is forged, how will the international community monitor Iranian compliance over the long term with dispersed nuclear sites spread across the country? The lesson the Iranian regime has drawn from Iraq is this: If you have the bomb, like North Korea, you are safe; it's better to build it, secretly if you have to, so you don't get caught short like Saddam Hussein. Iran will never give up its pursuit of the nuclear card.

But there is a more organic way to effect change in Iran using the same networks that contributed to its last revolution. Rather than worrying about Iran's influence over Iraq, we should be harnessing the strength of Iraq's newly empowered Shiites against the regime in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, is cut from a different cloth from the ruling clerics in Tehran.

He is of the quietist tradition, which holds that mosque and state should be kept separate. There are already profound roots for this philosophy within Iran itself. It was the conventional thinking among the religious authorities of my grandfather's era and was the norm until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini politicized Iranian Shiism.

A major artery of information flow and exchange has existed between the two countries for centuries. As Iraq's democracy and civil society stabilize, more and more Iranians will travel to Najaf and Karbala as pilgrims and seminary students. The Iranian state can restrict movement, what its people say, read and write, and what they see and hear on radio, TV and the Internet. But it will never be able to curtail their right to perform the pilgrimage to Iraq, which is a religious duty. The ideas these pilgrims take back with them to Iran could be the beginnings of an authentic counterrevolution against the tyranny of the mosque.

Sistani's religious credentials and learning dwarf those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his counterpart in Iran. There are many Iranians who would rather listen to the Iranian-born Sistani if he chooses to speak to them. Moreover, his call to freedom will be couched within a language they understand, that of tradition and religious scholarship.

The mullahs of Iran will be hard-pressed to counter its effect. But the internal Shiite politics in Iraq must be watched closely. While Sistani is a moderate, some of his colleagues have been corrupted by years of exile as the ruling clerics' guests in Iran.

The Pahlavi regime in Iran was ultimately undone from within, by the same modernizing forces that were unleashed by the Shah's White Revolution. Twenty-five years later, a startling parallel exists. The mullahs of Iran could similarly be overthrown by their own religious networks, the lifelines that had initially sustained their revolt against a secular Shah.

This strategy will not be as decisive as a cruise missile or as media-friendly as a brokered agreement. However, it will be seen by the Iranian people not as an artificial solution enforced upon them from outside but as an authentic evolution of their nation toward greater freedom.