On March 15, 2019, Hassan Rouhani became the first sitting president of of Iran to be received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most prominent source of emulation in the Shiite world.
Iranian authorities sought to spin the meeting as “historic,” a sign of their reach, Shiite unity, and perhaps even Najaf’s endorsement for Iran’s clerical regime, Michael Rubin wrote in The National Interest.
Everyone knows that Western powers did not play any role at all in eliminating terrorism in Iraq. They only carried out pretentious shows with their planes and helicopters… The issue of terrorism has not ended yet and may cause problems for the nations of the region again.
While the simple act of receiving Rouhani was noteworthy, Sistani’s subsequent statement was subtle but pointed in its criticism of Iranian actions.
Sistani has long refused to hold water for Iraqi politicians too under the thumb of Iran or the IRGC. Indeed, following current Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi’s selection, Sistani refused to meet the new Iraqi leader until his positions and achievements were clear.
Sistani continued to list the greatest challenges facing Iraq: corruption, public services and “ensuring that arms are exclusively under state control and its security agencies.”
This underscores the warning that Iran should cease abusing Iraqi sovereignty by directing militias and gangs which do not operate outside Iraqi government control and aims.
What Sistani seemed to be telling Rouhani was less “thank you” and more “Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani has outlived his welcome.” Indeed, some reformist press in Iran picked up this aspect of Sistani’s statement otherwise downplayed or ignored by Rouhani and Iran’s hardline press.