Najaf and Qom have taken two different approaches in dealing with general political affairs in Shiite communities since the introduction of the idea of velayat-e faqih. Although this idea was put forward for the first time in Najaf by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it has not been welcomed by the Shiite hawza (seminary). Finally, Khomeini managed to attain his wish to implement velayat-e faqih on the ground after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which made this idea widely popular within the Iranian seminary of Qom.
The period after 2003 was a great challenge for both Najaf and Qom, during which competition emerged between them on how to deal with the political affairs of Iraq. Qom tended to implement its religio-political vision in Iran on the situation in Iraq, while Najaf had a different perspective over the situation in Iraq — which has a wider religious and ethnic diversity than that of Iran — therefore considering it impossible to have a narrow Shiite perspective over Iraq.
Najaf thus opted for dealing positively with the change by building an inclusive civil state in Iraq that does not only take into consideration the Shiite majority. On the other hand, Qom only saw in Iraq an American threat to Iran’s interests on the one hand and the Shiite majority on the other. According to it, the American threat must be eliminated and the Shiite authority must be in control.
The difference also appeared during the recent Iraqi crisis. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani contented himself with issuing a fatwa urging the support of the army in all of its religious and ethnic components against terrorists, while at the same time repeatedly emphasizing the need to completely ban militias and unofficial armed groups. He never mentioned the word Shiites, or anything else related to Shiism, in his statements and in the declarations made by his office and spokesman. He was very careful when confirming the need to protect the holy places since he did not mention any specific description portraying these sanctuaries as Shiite shrines. His statements were broad and mentioned Christian and Yazidi temples and others in the areas falling under the control of the Islamic State (IS) — formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Meanwhile, Qom authorities focused their attention on the subject of Shiites and the expansion of Shiism in Iraq. Their statements and denouncements made toward the various parties in this crisis were based on this sectarian ideological perspective.
Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi issued a fatwa for jihad on June 23. The fatwa contradicted Sistani's vision in the following aspects: Makarem linked the Iraqi situation to the Syrian situation to set a comprehensive fighting front based on the sectarian conflict; he adopted the style of the Iranian regime by throwing accusations against the United States and Arab countries blaming them for the crises in Iraq; he only referred to the Shiite holy sites; and he called for a general mobilization of all Shiites in the world urging them to form armed forces along with the Iraqi army, which implies the promotion of militias.
In a similar context, the provisional president of the Iranian Assembly of Experts, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi — who immigrated from Najaf to Iran after the Islamic Revolution — issued a lengthy statement indicating that the Iraqi crisis has three axes: the United States and Israel; the Arab countries and others loyal to the United States, specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey; and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, whom he accused of dealing with IS to control the disputed territories. He also praised the work of Shiite militias such as the Badr Army, which managed to carry out military actions in conflict areas with the Sunni-armed groups. He also accused some Sunni politicians of supporting the terrorists.
It is worth mentioning that Shahroudi enjoys good relations with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — he presided over the judiciary in Iran for 10 years. Several preparations were previously undertaken for his transfer to Iraq as a pro-Iranian authority in Najaf, but this did not occur for undisclosed reasons; probably to avoid collisions with Sistani.
Shahroudi also has broad historic ties with the Islamic Dawa Party, which the Iraqi prime minister of the caretaker government, Nouri al-Maliki, is affiliated with. This implies that Shahroudi would enjoy political support in the event his name is put forward as a religious authority in Iraq.
It is expected that the issue of announcing Shahroudi as the religious authority in Iraq will be postponed until the post-Sistani period to ensure his success and eliminate any strong competitor. In this case, the Iranian guide would have a significant presence in Najaf and Najaf policy would shift from the civil state project sponsored by Sistani to the project of Shiite Islamist parties loyal to the idea of velayat-e faqih.