There remains a distance between the Persian Shi’a Ayatollahs and the Arab Shi’a Ayatollahs. One could say it’s the old divide between Baghdad and Qom.
At its core, the rivalry is rooted in an esoteric debate over a controversial bit of Shiite jurisprudence that calls for a “trustworthy jurist” to guide society until the return of an “infallible” descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who’s been in hiding — or “occultation” — for more than 1,000 years. That doctrine, known as velayat-e faqih, is the guiding principle behind the system of clerical rule that Iran adopted in 1979.
“We must pursue the righteous man,” Khomeini declared from his exile in Paris a few weeks before his triumphant return to Iran. “When a righteous man comes to power, he will create a righteous state.”
The theory underpins a strategy of religious revival centered around the supreme leader’s claim to “absolute guardianship” over the Muslim faithful. Yet its theological validity remains a matter of intense debate among clerics four decades after the fall of the shah, even inside Iran itself.
The “predominant model of [Shiite theology] was seriously challenged by Ayatollah Khomeini, since he directly and explicitly claimed both religious and political authority for jurists,” a prominent cleric in the Qom seminary told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world. With Sistani pushing 90 and facing persistent rumors of ill health, Khamenei and his allies see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take over Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world.
The outcome of this clash between the two dominant figures of Shiite authority promises major consequences both for Iranian clerics’ continued control inside the country as well as their ability to wield influence over Shiites around the globe. But its most immediate impact will be felt on Iraq’s capacity to continue charting its own path in the shadow of the Islamic theocracy next door.