KARBALA, IRAQ — It has been just short of 39 years since Iranian students, acting at the behest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, ultimately holding 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Three and a half years later, a Hezbollah terrorist drove a truck laden with explosives into the Beirut compound of U.S. Marines in Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission, killing 241. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Iranian government gloated (even as ordinary Iranians held candlelight vigils). "The super-terrorist had a taste of its own bitter medicine," Kayhan, a newspaper which acts as a mouthpiece for Iran's supreme leader, declared.
Approximately half the U.S. population was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iran’s flip from U.S. ally to adversary. I was eight years old when the embassy was seized, and I remember the explosion of anti-Iran graffiti, yellow ribbons, and constant news coverage. Those of my age group are now congressmen, ambassadors, colonels, and senior government officials; most do not remember Iran as an ally and Beirut as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Nor, for that matter, do many Americans visit Azerbaijan, a secular Shi’ite state which remains an important U.S. regional ally.
In short, Shi’ism has an image problem in the United States.
That the Islamic Republic is an adversary of the U.S. is indisputable. Indeed, enmity toward the U.S. remains the official position of Iran, regardless of what party holds the White House. To Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whether he faces Obama administration obsequiousness or Trump bluster is unimportant. That they represent the U.S. is the key issue. “Death to America,” for Khamenei, is not empty rhetoric but rather aspiration.
The U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein came at a terrible cost in terms of blood and treasure, but it did free all Iraqis from the scourge of Saddam Hussein. It may not be popular to say, but given the juxtaposition with Syria, Iraq may be better off because of it. As the winds of the Arab Spring caused Libya, Syria, and Yemen to descend into chaos, Iraqis argued in Parliament. When Iraqi governments failed, leaders stepped down; they did not slaughter their citizens. Iraqis faced terrorism and insurgency, and have largely defeated it.
That Iraq is today peaceful and increasingly democratic and moderate is, in many ways, the result of the Shi’ite religious establishment in Najaf and Karbala. It was Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who insisted on a constitution written by Iraqis and, despite the self-promoting claims of certain Americans to have been its authors, Iraqis were the ones who wrote it, and Iraqis who compromised on it. No Iraqi liked occupation, but it was Sistani and his colleagues who resisted both the populism of Muqtada al-Sadr and the self-righteous violence of other Iran-backed militias. In 2006, after al Qaeda terrorists blew up one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines in Samarra, it was Sistani who forbade sectarian reprisals, dampening the subsequent violence. And, after the rise of the Islamic State, it was Sistani who rallied Iraqis to indigenous defense to save Iraq from disaster. True, some militias today — Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Badr Corps — remain under Iran’s thumb, but not all Popular Mobilization Units are the same. Those who heeded Sistani’s call did their service and then returned; those who seek legitimacy in Sistani but answer to Iran betray it.
Edward Djerejian, an assistant secretary of state in the early 1990s, famously declared, “While we believe in the principle of 'one man, one vote,' we do not support, 'one man, one vote, one time.'” While fine rhetoric, it is often in dissonance to U.S. policy in the region: in Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, and in Iraqi Kurdistan. But, because the religious authorities in Najaf and Karbala do not pollute themselves with politics as happens in post-revolutionary Iran, they retain greater moral authority with the public, both Shi’ite and non-Shi’ite. It has largely been because of the independent voice of the top clerics that Iraq has now had five smooth transfers of power. In few other Arab states is there such a thing as a retired leader. Subtle criticism from the ayatollahs is often enough to undercut the legitimacy of any politician deemed ineffective or, in the case of Nouri al-Maliki, corrupt.
The religious leadership in Najaf and Karbala fiercely protect religious independence and freedom. That does not mean simply for Shi’ites. Perhaps as many displaced Sunni fleeing the Islamic State fled to Najaf and Karbala as to the northern Kurdish region. Those that came south integrated into society, found jobs, and their children went to schools that did not impose religious interpretations; they were more accepted than refugees. It is the same protection of religious freedom that makes the religious authorities in Najaf and Karbala a bulwark against Iranian efforts to subvert such tolerance. Indeed, if the U.S. was wise, rather than withdrawing its only consulate in southern Iraq, it would maintain a representative in Najaf.
Perhaps the best indicator of Najaf’s independence and moderating influence are the near-constant Iranian attempts to subvert it. The Iranian regime, like Saddam’s, has tried to use force to intimidate clergy. When I recently visited the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office — apparently at the behest of Iran and because he is upset for personal reasons that religious authorities would not overlook his stink of corruption — circulated a deeply anti-Semitic video replete with false statements trying to embarrass religious authorities for hosting a Jew, as if dialogue and mutual respect is somehow bad. In Iraq today, religious authorities recognize the cynicism and falsehood of such tactics; they do not embrace the swamp of conspiracy as in Tehran.
Najaf will never do America’s bidding, nor should it any more than it should subordinate itself to Iran. That is not its role. But being an independent force underscores how important it is in Washington to recognize that the problem lies not in religion, but rather with those in Tehran or southern Lebanon who would seek to pervert it for the cause of corruption or power. Indeed, supporting religious freedom and independence among Shi’ites in Iraq and elsewhere is probably the best defense against Iranian government encroachment.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.