A top Iranian Shiite cleric visited Najaf and his aim was to raise his profile as a replacement for Sistani.
In early September, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a senior Iranian official and cleric, flew to the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. His entourage included a sizable security detail and the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military force in the Islamic Republic.
Shahroudi, 69, spent several days on a charm offensive meeting officials, clerics and seminary students at his office near the golden dome shrine of Imam Ali, one of the world’s holiest Shi‘ite sites.
His aim was to raise his profile as a replacement for the top Shi‘ite cleric 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 Islamic State, 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 Shi‘ite factions are jockeying to influence who replaces Sistani. Iran, whose population is mostly Shi’ite, backs Shahroudi.
Shahroudi could prove a controversial replacement for Sistani. Senior clergy 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.