NAJAF, Iraq: In early September, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a senior Iranian official and Islamic scholar, flew to the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. His entourage included a sizable security detail and the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, the most powerful military force in the Islamic Republic.Shahroudi, 69, spent several days on a charm offensive meeting officials, Shiite religious scholars and seminary students at his office near the golden dome shrine of Imam Ali, one of the world’s holiest Shiite sites.
His aim was to raise his profile as a replacement for the top Shiite religious scholar and most powerful man in Iraq, the 87-year-old Ayatollah Ali Sistani, according to current and former Iraqi officials.
While attention has focused on Iraq’s battle against Daesh (ISIS), the country’s future could equally hinge on what is happening in Najaf.
With Sistani’s advanced age and persistent rumors about his health, the question of his replacement has become more pointed.
Iraqi Shiite factions are jockeying to influence who replaces Sistani.
Iran, whose population is mostly Shiite, backs Shahroudi.
Shahroudi could prove a controversial replacement for Sistani. Senior religious figures in Najaf are wary of Iran trying to expand its influence and Shahroudi is viewed with some suspicion, although he could still build support among students.
Since Sistani has distanced himself from Iranian politics some of his followers may not want a replacement who is close to Tehran.
Sources in Najaf were unwilling to go on the record on a matter as sensitive as Sistani’s successor, but a former senior Iraqi official told Reuters, “The Iranians will try their best.
“It’s not just religious, politics have become part of it. It will decide the fate of Iraq,” the official said.
Iran has already expanded its influence in Iraq by helping the Shiite-led government in Baghdad retake disputed areas from the Kurds.
The head of the branch of the Revolutionary Guard responsible for operations outside Iran, Qasem Soleimani, personally convinced some Kurdish leaders to abandon their claim to contested towns, like the oil-rich Kirkuk.
Attempts to reach Shahroudi and the Revolutionary Guard media office were unsuccessful, as were attempts to contact Sistani’s office for comment.
If Iran can influence who becomes the next top Shiite religious scholar in Iraq, it could tighten its grip on power within the country for years.
A senior religious scholar in Najaf who is sympathetic to the interests of Iran would also eliminate a rival to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who claims to be the leader of Shiites worldwide.
For years, Sistani, who has endorsed a religious and political viewpoint independent of Iran, has been Khamenei’s top challenger for that leadership role.
Sistani is rarely seen in public but his decrees are sacrosanct to his millions of Shiite followers. Sistani’s fatwa to rise up against the Sunni militants of Daesh thwarted the group’s push toward Baghdad in 2014.
Sistani has also used his decrees to reduce sectarian violence in the country. He opposed the secession of the Kurdish region after the referendum on independence in September but then urged Baghdad to protect Kurds after reports of abuses surfaced last month.
Without Sistani’s restraining influence, clashes are likely to break out between sects as well as among rival Shiite groups, Iraqi officials and observers say.
“Sistani is not just a poor guy sitting in a house. He can control millions of people,” the Iraqi former senior official said.
“It will be a very bloody struggle after Sistani passes away.”
Sources in Najaf expect Sistani to remain in his post until his death.
There is no clear succession process, but Shahroudi would need to obtain the support of a large number of ordinary Shiites, seminary students and other clerics.
Shahroudi is no stranger to Najaf: He was born in the city to Iranian parents. In the 1970s he was jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s security forces because of his political activities.
He moved to Iran after the Islamic revolution and has been promoted to top posts since Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989.
Shahroudi was head of the Iranian judiciary for a decade and is currently the head of the Expediency Council, a body intended to resolve disputes between Parliament and a hard-line watchdog body, the Guardian Council.
In public, Shahroudi is often seen sitting next to Khamenei.
Shahroudi’s visit is only one sign of how Tehran is trying to rally support for its candidate to replace Sistani.
A company linked to the Revolutionary Guard is involved in a $300 million project to expand the Imam Ali shrine, making it the second-largest Muslim holy site after Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
“These projects create a state of dependency between recipients of aid and Tehran since they integrate the Iraqi infrastructure into the Iranian infrastructure network,” said Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Guard at the Atlantic Council. “Furthermore, such activities provide a cover for the Islamic Republic’s intelligence networks operating in Iraq.”
In 2011, Shahroudi opened an office in Najaf and began paying religious students stipends, which observers say was an attempt by Iran to increase its influence.
“It was a provocative move,” said an Iraqi analyst familiar with the Shiite religious authorities who asked not to be identified.
Shahroudi subsequently opened offices in Baghdad and Karbala. He pays stipends to thousands of seminary students, according to Iraqi officials and religious sources in Najaf.
Shiite religious scholars often pay stipends to students to gather support, raise their profile and perhaps become accepted as a marja, or top religious scholar, observers say.
“Iran is trying to influence the process of who comes after Sistani through the students,” said a Western diplomat in Iraq who did not have permission to speak on the record.
Sistani is now the main sponsor of Shiite religious students, paying millions of dollars in Iraq and elsewhere. His son Mohammad Ridha oversees the financial and administrative work of his office.
“Follow the dollars to see what will happen next,” said an Iraqi senior official familiar with the clerical politics of Najaf. “Mohammad Ridha Sistani controls all the cash.”
Mohammad Ridha’s work could position him to replace his father, observers say, though passing the religious mantle within a family would be unprecedented in Shiite custom.
Top contenders to replace Sistani in Najaf include three other marjas but they are old and there is no clear front-runner, according to religious sources and Iraqi officials.
“Nothing is fixed to make a decision for this procedure,” said Sheikh Ali Najafi, son of one of the top Najaf marjas.
While in Iraq, Shahroudi made a visit to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad.
Iraqi officials said Sistani refused to see him in Najaf, but they do not expect the Iranians to give up.