Webinar: Clerical Developments and Politics in the Howzehs of Iraq and Iran

Research event
17 September 2020 — 2:00PM TO 3:30PM

Clerical developments in the seminaries of Iran and Iraq have long been a driver of bilateral collaboration and regional competition between Qom and Najaf. Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has promoted its Shi’a ideology rooted in its idea of Islamic government to mobilize the Iranian population and build transnational networks that are loyal to Iran.

Under the leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clergy has been institutionalized and managed centrally leading to a decline in independent thought. Amid increasing repression, clerical influence has been on the decline as secular social and political trends have gained greater popular traction. This has led to the growth of Iran’s influence and interference in the Howzeh’s and politics of neighbouring Iraq. Since the 2003 Iraq war, pilgrimage flows between the two countries have also been on the rise as have Iran’s support for political parties, personalities and militia groups.

In Iraq, the Shi’a religious establishment has had an important historical role in balancing formal and informal politics. The Howzeh through many periods of Iraqi history seeks to protect its its interests often mediating or engaging with protesters and the state. The Iraqi clergy claims not to interfere but the incoherence of the state since 2003 has forced it to play a more prominent role.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s 2014 fatwa was instrumental in assembling Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. Despite Sistani’s call to join state forces, this fatwa eventually laid the groundwork for the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Units, many of which continue to receive support from Iran. Unlike their Iranian counterparts, the Iraqi clergy is careful not to interfere in domestic politics nor to wade in to Iranian internal affairs.

In this webinar, part of MENA Programme Online Events Series, panelists will explore the religious and political dynamics, and assess the economic and political power of these institutions. Speakers will also discuss how the respective Iraqi and Iranian seminaries will be impacted by the politics of religious succession.

The webinar will be livestreamed on the MENA Programme Facebook page.


Marsin Alshamary, Incoming Post-doctoral Fellow, Brookings
Abbas Kadhim, Director, Iraq Initiative and Resident Senior Fellow, Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council
Mehdi Khalaji, Libitzky Family Fellow, The Washington Institute
Moderator: Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

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