On November 11, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani received Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the representative in Iraq of the United Nations secretary general. Sistani welcomed a reform plan proposed by Plasschaert in response to weeks-long protests in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, and expressed his concern that “respective parties might not be serious about implementing real reforms.”
If those parties “were incapable or unwilling to make the required reforms,” Sistani continued, then “an alternative path should be considered.” This was the strongest position conveyed by the cleric since the protests began. It led many Iraqis to wonder what the “alternative path” to which Sistani referred might be.
Sistani has occupied a central place in Iraqi Shi‘a politics, revered by all parties as a higher moral guide and sometimes as the ultimate informal authority. His fatwas and statements have played important roles in supporting or legitimizing certain courses of action—whether it was his call for early elections in 2003 after the U.S. occupation, his advice to the Da‘wa party in 2014 to select a new prime minister, or his fatwa calling on Iraqis to join the war against the Islamic State.
It became common in the post-2003 period to turn to Sistani in times of crisis, under the assumption that his words would be obeyed by most Iraqi Shi‘a. Knowing this, Sistani has always been careful not to exhaust his capital with petty politics and has saved his words for the most momentous situations. That is why his latest words on the protests revealed how seriously he perceived the current situation in Iraq. This pushed him to emerge from his seclusion and present his message in person, following several speeches delivered in Friday sermons by his representatives in Karbala.
However, an examination of Sistani’s record reveals that he has never taken a position that is not already accepted by a broad range of Iraqis, nor has he offered detailed suggestions for how to change things. His words are chosen carefully in order to avoid dragging the religious authorities into partisan conflicts. Sistani has regularly warned that the status quo is not sustainable given the rampant corruption and failure of Iraq’s ruling parties, but his proposal has so far been a call for those parties to embrace reform. By vaguely backing the UN representative’s proposal, he admitted that a third party had to get involved in formulating a serious reform plan. His preference for a UN-led role echoes his stance after 2003, in which he considered the organization as the only neutral and legitimate body that could shape Iraq’s constitutional and political processes.
The protest movement, which has so far been concentrated in predominantly Shi‘a areas, represents the most critical threat to the system dominated by Shi‘a Islamist groups. The religious authority in Najaf has benefited from this system by gaining more autonomy and recognition, formalized in a set of new regulations and norms asserting its dominant position within the religious field. But Sistani has also sought to distinguish himself from the politicians and act as a mediator between the state and society—a role enhanced by the weakness of civil society due to long years of authoritarianism, internal conflict, and the dominance of the state sector.
Sistani has maintained his social capital by engaging minimally in politics. However, other actors have managed to build their leverage by cultivating their factions within the political process and state institutions. Today, there are three main players in Shi‘a politics: Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in parliament as well as a strong grassroots movement, and the pro-Iranian axis, which includes a number of parties and paramilitary groups that often respond to the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Suleimani. To a large extent, the nomination of ‘Adil ‘Abdul Mahdi as prime minister in 2018 was the outcome of an informal compromise among those players, which was formalized in an agreement between the Sadr-led Sairoun electoral bloc and Fatah, the political wing of the pro-Tehran axis, blessed by the largest non-Shi‘a group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Realizing this, ‘Abdul Mahdi, who has no party, sought to please those multiple forces. He did so by claiming that he would follow Sistani’s call for reform, while at the same time adopting inconsistent policies and making appointments that aimed to please Sadr, Suleimani, and the KDP. This ended up paralyzing his government and impeding its ability to implement serious reform.
However, the protest movement has brought a new player into the game, the Iraqi street. Its demands for an end to the ethnosectarian and partisan apportionment of state institutions and resources, like its desire to topple the government, threaten the very balance of power that produced ‘Abdul Mahdi’s government. With each major player calculating its response and pushing in a direction that served its interests, ‘Abdul Mahdi increasingly appeared powerless.
The pro-Iranian groups initially adopted a security approach and allegedly played a significant role in attempting to crack down on protestors. Sadr sought to ride the protest wave early on, or at least appear as its protector. At some point, especially after the attacks against the headquarters of Iranian-allied militias on October 25, there was the risk of an escalation that could lead to an intra-Shi‘a civil war, primarily between Iranian-allied militias and the Sadrists.
Fearing such a war and the collapse of a system in which they had deeply invested, the Iranians reportedly brokered a deal that sustained support for ‘Abdul Mahdi as the lesser evil for the political class. Sadr, who is spending more time in Qom, Iran, of late, backed down and his current strategy seems to be winning over the Iranians in order to preserve and increase his leverage.
That is where Sistani came into play. Initially, there were reports claiming that his influential son Mohammed Reza was part of the Iranian-brokered deal. Sistani’s office not only denied those reports, but followed this up with the meeting with the UN representative and the statement cited earlier.
Sistani realizes that the system’s legitimacy has been significantly damaged. Only serious reform can weaken the grip on power and resources of the dominant political forces, helping to bridge the gap between the Iraqi state and the street. He also realizes that letting Iran broker deals among Iraqi factions, thereby driving the country’s political trajectory, would further deprive Najaf of its power. By more clearly siding with the protestors, Sistani made one of his boldest moves yet, the outcome of which may determine the balance of power within the Shi‘a community and Iraqi politics for years to come.