Iraq’s emergence as a center of Shiite pilgrimage since 2003, especially among Iranian Muslims, is presenting a “serious challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s state-sponsored religious establishment,” according to the Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2014).
Nearly two million Shiite pilgrims passed from Iran to Iraq between March 2009 and February 2010—comparable to if not greater than the number of pilgrims traveling to Mecca and to the Christian and Jewish sites in Israel during the same year. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian government has made these pilgrimages a high priority, organizing package tours, which are accompanied by government-selected spiritual guides, “who are vetted for political awareness and loyalty to the Islamic regime,” writes Nathaniel Rabkin.
Rather than Iran attempting to gain influence in Iraq, as some Americans and Iraqis claim, these government-guided tours actually avoid fostering close relationships with Iraqis; the government agency overseeing these pilgrimages make little attempt to use its citizens as good will ambassadors, advising them to avoid political discussions and reject gifts (pilgrim offerings are a folk tradition in Southern Iraq).
“Rather than strengthening Iranian influence over Iraqi affairs, the pilgrimage seems to be enhancing the popularity of Iraq-based religious leaders inside Iran,” such as Najaf-based Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, according to Rabkin. He adds that Sistani’s popularity “reflects a genuine hunger in Iran for an independent religious leadership untainted by connections and corruption.” Sistani and the rest of Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment reflects the “quietist” school of Shiite thought, in which religious leaders can offer advice on political matters but do not take sides in the struggle for power.
Rabkin concludes that “Tehran may exercise numerous forms of influence over its smaller, weaker and poorer neighbor, but when it comes to religious affairs, the influence seems to be running mostly in the opposite direction. In the coming years, Iranian authorities may be forced to devote their attention to counteracting Iraqi religious influence inside their country.”
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