Why the letter to Sistani could backfire

By now most of you will have already been aware that recently the US President Barack Obama dispatched a letter to Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, the Supreme Shi’ite religious authority, based in Najaf, Iraq. While the contents of the letter are unknown, and whether the letter reached its intended recipient is also in doubt, I will assume as most commentators have said, that the letter includes a plea from Obama for Sistani to intervene and urge the political factions to find a solution to the impasse in Iraq.

I think most political analysts would call this a smart move, since Obama (not the man, the people around him) recognizes Sistani’s clout in Iraq and is using another avenue to put pressure on the politicians to get a move on. If Sistani does intervene and the politicians respond, the Americans can claim credit.

But that is exactly why Sistani may not do anything at all for a while now the news has been leaked (obviously deliberately, and I have a good idea by whom [he thinks he is doing something good by showing the influence and power of the supreme Marja’ since the US President has to contact him and seek his help]) because he does not want to be seen responding to American calls, rather that he calls the shots and takes the initiative.

Also, he is very cautious of being trapped in the allegation that he is interfering using religion to intervene in politics and also of sectarian bias, alienating Sunnis at home and the neighboring Arab countries who are weary of him already and also bringing back all the talk of wilayat al-faqih, Islamic govt, quietism, etc. Finally, he does not want to be forced to become more active in Iraqi politics as he was 2003-2007, fearing damage to his credibility and legacy, and setting a precedent for his successors to freely intervene, thus damaging the institution of the 1,000 year old Marja’iyah which he has inherited and will pass on soon, when inevitably the supreme Marja’ makes a bad move in political affairs.

So what seemed like a good idea at the onset is fraught with so many complexities that it may even backfire and actually delay the formation of a new government in Iraq.

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