In this sense, it seems useful not to indulge in the reductive simplicity of the Sunni-Shia dichotomy. The polarization and politicization of this cultural and religious identity is evident to everyone; however, it would be absurd to view the “Shi’ite front” – in particular, in Syria and Iraq – as a homogeneous block that pursues the same objectives. On the contrary, behind the unification to which they were pushed by the aggressiveness of the Sunni Salafi and Jihadi-Salafi radicalism, the Middle Eastern Shi’ites maintain deep differences in terms of identity, political and religious views, and interests.
First of all, what should not be underestimated is the vast plurality of streams and subsets of the Shi‘a, a diversified archipelago; then, there is the ethnic break within the most significant stream – i.e. Shi’a Twelvers – divided into Shi’ites of different ethnicity, Arabic, Turkish and, of course, Persian (the most numerous and important). And the deep rivalry among Arabs, Turks and Persians has certainly not disappeared.
Albeit less visible, the division among the highest Shi’ite Twelver authorities is even more important. For decades, there has been a religious and geopolitical rivalry between Qom – the city that is the heart of the Iranian clergy – and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the Shi’ite religious centers, which are located in Iraq. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the rivalry worsened progressively, with Qom supporting, at least officially, Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih (the supremacy of the jurist, i.e. the clergy’s direct control over politics), while the theological schools of Najaf have always been opposed to this view, perceiving it as a dangerous deviation.
Even after the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the differences did not disappear. The highest authority in Iraq, the marja‘ al-taqlid (source of imitation), ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, despite playing a decisive role in building a new Shi’ite-led Iraq, has always been opposed to the clergy’s direct political action, looking to soften the heavy Iranian interferences, which came to “challenge” him in the very city of Najaf, with the creation of religious schools guided by the vision of the velayat-e faqih and with the financial and political support to Iraqi religious parties.
However, the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and the birth of the jihadist caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 have forced al-Sistani to take steps to support a “Shi’ite” answer to the deadly threat posed by ISIS (which considers Shi’ites as apostates, therefore deserving death). Hence his support for the People’s Mobilization Forces, al-Hashd al-Sha‘abi, Shi’ite militias created by the Iraqi government. They are strongly supported militias, armed and trained by the Iranian Pasdaran and thus indirectly controlled by Iran’s supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For al-Sistani, such militias were an inevitable answer to a potentially catastrophic situation, but they had to be first of all a nationalist-driven force to free Iraq, more than an instrument of a sectarian fight. On the contrary, though, the Iranians turned them into militias with a clear religious imprint, recruiting Shi’ite volunteers from different countries and making them an instrument more faithful to Tehran than to Baghdad. The preeminence of the sectarian aspect caused revenge and excesses from the Shi’ite militants in reconquered Sunni areas: such facts have outraged al-Sistani, who for many years has exhorted people to moderation and not to increase intra-religious hatred, the first cause of the collapse of the Iraqi state.
Even deeper is the disagreement on regional policy: the great Iraqi ayatollah has always preached prudence and a compromising attitude toward other Arabic countries and the Sunnis; Khamenei and the pasdaran, instead, are convinced that they should get a distinct military victory in Syria, supporting at any cost Bashar al-Assad, a key leader in the strategic interests of Iran. And this should be done even at the cost of strengthening the Arab Sunnis’ hostility towards the Shi’ites.
In short, al-Sistani thinks primarily in religious terms and in terms of reduction of sectarian clash in and out of Islam, opposing the direct involvement of the Shi’ite clergy into political affairs, with a perspective that, surely, starts with Iraq but that looks at the interests of the faithful Shi’ites throughout the region. On the contrary, Khamenei and “turbaned politicians”, as the Iranians call the religious Iranians directly involved in the management of power, think in political and strategic terms, putting the Iranian nationalist interests before any other concern (albeit the pan-Shi’ite rhetoric of the post-revolutionary regime of Tehran).
Indeed, they are two practically irreconcilable ways of representing a guide and religious model. Certainly, al-Sistani does not have the political power – let alone the military one – that Khamenei has. But the collapse of the charisma of the Shi’ite clergy in Iran and the disaffection of millions of Iranians towards Islam are at odds with the moral authority – which translates into political influence – still held by old al-Sistani, considered by tens of millions of faithful as the highest religious authority, and the only real “source of imitation.” And they see him as the best river bank that the Shi’ite tradition has in Najaf against the dangerous doctrinal “innovation” represented by Khomeini’s revolutionary thought.