November 22, 2004

Iran and Muqtada

Taking various data points and spinning a narrative is, in essence, what intelligence is all about. And Dan Darling of Winds of Change does it marvelously well. But the caveat should be that his narrative about Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran is just one of many possible narratives, and probably underdetermined by the available evidence. His key thesis seems to be that certain Iranian mullahs, including Sadr's former mentor Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, were using Sadr to foment violence against the U.S. and—more importantly—to intimidate the other Shiite leaders in Iran, thus paving the way for the creation of an Iranian puppet state.

As far as I'm concerned, Dan is always thought-provoking. But one thing to watch for is that he tends to overemphasize sinister political maneuvering in the Arab world, and underemphasize religious motives. Case in point: Why did Kazem al-Haeri break with Sadr in September of 2004? One theory is that Sadr was too chauvinistic, too anti-Iran, to serve as a useful pawn any longer. Another is that Sadr, who was causing havoc in Najaf, was actually hindering Iranian involvement by strengthening the hand of Ayatollah Ali Sistani—who has a different view of theocracy than do the Iranians. Another, though, as reported by the New York Times, is that Ayatollah Ali Sistani himself engineered the break-up, by letting clerics in Qom know what Sadr was doing to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf:
Hojatoleslam Hadi Qabel, a cleric in Qum, said that after a bullet damaged the main dome of Imam Ali's shrine in Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani's office in Tehran told clerics in Qum that the bullet had come from a site where Mr. Sadr's forces were hiding. He said several high-ranking clerics in Najaf wrote a scolding letter to clerics in Qum for supporting Mr. Sadr.

"The news had such a negative impact in Qum that Ayatollah Haeri was forced to withdraw his support for Mr. Sadr," Mr. Qabel said.
Is this naïve? Would "minor" things like shrines and domes really matter that much to Haeri? I think so. But at the same time, politics have no doubt corrupted religion in the Islamic Republic—which is, incidentally, one of the best arguments for separating church and state. But to what extent? Are Haeri/Iran and Sistani really such bitter rivals, or do they have some significantly shared sense of religious duty? This is an important question to ask. What I'm driving at is that the mullahs in Tehran and Sistani may not be so far apart on governing issues that Iran would feel the need to kill off all moderate Shiites (via Sadr and others) and install its own puppet government. More on this later.
-- Brad Plumer 4:05 PM || ||