The meeting of Iran’s president Rouhani and Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf was a spectacle on which to ponder and which raises many issues. Not least of which is the relationship between Iran and Iraq.
The spectacle of two clerics meeting to pronounce on the future of the two countries is worth reflection. It is almost impossible to conceive of such a situation anywhere else in the world. It is not just that the two men approach foreign and domestic affairs from a theocratic position; the most disturbing issue is the blatant fact that they both come from the Shia sect. Yet again sectarianism has been entrenched where a secular future for Iraq should have been advanced.
The warm words of Rouhani are a veneer laid over the hard truths about Iraq’s supplicant status to Iran. When Rouhani hailed the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries and that it should be ‘reinforced and developed’ no one should be fooled that this relationship is one of equals. Rouhani’s visit incrementally reinforces the growing influence and power that Iran wields over Iraq. This was not lost on US special representative for Iran Brian Hook who said ‘you have to question the motive’ of Rouhani’s visit.’ He went on to say ‘I think what Iran would ultimately like to see happen is Iraq turn into a province of Iran...President Rouhani coming to Iran is not in the interest of the Iraqi people.’ Rouhani’s visit laid down a marker that Iran’s theocratic rulers have no intentions of backing down in the face of US pressure.
Meanwhile, Sistani appeared to have spoken out of two sides of his mouth at the same time. He welcomed ‘any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relationship with its neighbours’... ‘based on the respect for the sovereignty of the countries with no interference in domestic affairs.’ Sistani is not blind. He knows full well the inroads and control exerted by Iran. Neither is he an idiot. So a careful scrutiny of his expression is worthwhile. The words ‘any steps’ carry weight and can be read as appeasement if not downright collaboration with Rouhani’s regime. In trying to pronounce a mellifluous balance Sistani has laid bare the contradictions of his view of the relationship with Iran. ‘Any steps’ cannot be reconciled with ‘no interference.’
Returning again to the issue of sectarianism it is worth pitching the state of Iraq against that of western rules-based countries that best demonstrate the model of how to accommodate the interests of all constituents. In comparison with western countries Iraq appears to be moving away from a settled form of secular democracy, rather than towards it. People should be allowed to believe in any way they choose and be free to profess their faith. The division between faith and state is a key feature of most advanced nations. However, the sight of two Shia clerics pronouncing on Iraq’s relationship with a power-hungry Iran has more than a tinge of medievalism about it.