The rise of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi seemed over in 2015 when he withdrew from the election for chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses Iran’s supreme leader. News that Shahroudi faced investigation for financial irregularities suggested a manoeuvre by the judiciary chief, Sadegh Larijani, a rival for the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then 75.
However, Shahroudi’s recent trip to Iraq, aimed at shoring up relations with Iraqi Shia leaders, suggests he remains close to Khamenei and a strong candidate to succeed him.
The Iraqi visit countered moves with which Saudi Arabia abandoned years of shunning Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion produced a Shia-led government friendly to Iran. June and July saw Saudi visits by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji.
Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was received in Jeddah in July by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and, on his return home, demanded that once the Islamic State (ISIS) threat ends, the government disband the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Shia militias that often co-ordinate with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The Saudis reopened the Arar border crossing and announced consulates in Najaf, Basra and Mosul. This is partly business but mainly politics. At the Arar opening, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, Saudi chargé d’affaires, spoke of “a great history, Arabism and blood between us.”
Sceptics cite Iranian influence based on geography and the Shia Islam shared by 55% of Iraqis and 90% of Iranians but they struggle to explain why Iraqi governments since 2003 have refused to endorse the 1975 Algiers border agreement, seen in Iraq as favouring Iran.
While some Iraqi Shias took Iran’s side during the 1980-88 war and decamped to Tehran, al- Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, stayed home and was assassinated in 1999. Muqtada after 2003 espoused an Iraqi nationalism stirring poorer Shias and often mocking exiles returning from Iran.
Al-Sadr’s call for scrapping the PMFs’ strikes at Tehran’s Iraq policy. Even more serious for Iran is speculation that Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, will rescind his 2014 fatwa that Iraqis take up arms against ISIS. Now 87, Sistani rejects velayat-e faqih, the theory placing a Shia cleric in Iran’s top executive post. Many Iraqi Shia clerics say their country, with shrines of seven of 12 Shia imams, is the sect’s natural centre.
Cue Shahroudi, appointed by Khamenei to be chairman of the Expediency Council, a state arbitration body. Shahroudi is unique in Iranian politics with a large office in Najaf, city of his birth, and a wide Iraqi network. His rise in Iran, after leaving Iraq in 1980, was linked to Khamenei’s succession to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“In 1988, Shahroudi changed his nationality to Iranian, when he was still spokesman of the [Iraqi] Dawa Party,” said Saeid Golkar, visiting assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “He became Shahroudi, from Shahroud in north-eastern Iran and his rise was dramatic as judiciary chief 1999-2009 and now head of the Expediency Council. After Khomeini died in 1989, Shahroudi acted as Khamenei’s teacher.”
This was important, as many clerics believed Khamenei was unqualified to be leader, and created a close relationship. “I suspect Shahroudi’s trip to Iraq was a response to Muqtada’s welcome in Saudi Arabia,” said Golkar. “Because of Shahroudi’s background, Khamenei may think he can be a bridge between the two countries. Shahroudi speaks Arabic fluently, much better than he speaks Farsi. He sounds like an Arab.”
However, with 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections looming and Kurdish pressure for independence encouraging talk of an alliance of ‘nationalistic’ Shia and Sunni Iraqi Arabs, Shahroudi’s visit was less than successful. While he met with Abadi and Hadi al-Amiri, a PMF commander, both al-Sadr and Sistani eluded him.
Shahroudi’s role in Iraq could still help him succeed Khamenei. While Iraqi birth might stop him winning a popular vote in Iran, the choice lies with the 88 clerics of the Experts Assembly, albeit influenced by the bureaucracy, parliamentarians, senior clerics and the IRGC.
Shahroudi’s lack of a clear political base in Iran might be an advantage, said Golkar. “He is less likely to come into conflict with Ayatollah Khamenei and it may also help him with the Revolutionary Guards, who may think he can be easily influenced,” Golkar said. “Meanwhile, the ageing clergy in the assembly may prefer Shahroudi as part of an older generation.”
At 69, Shahroudi is older and more senior as a cleric than 56-year-old rivals Larijani and Ebrahim Raeisi, head of the Imam Reza shrine. Shahroudi has also been cultivating the IRGC. He recently appointed as an aide Ahmad Vahidi, former commander of the IRGC al-Quds brigade and former defence minister, and he was accompanied in Iraq by the wily Mohsen Rezaei, Expediency Council secretary and former IRGC commander.
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
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