Is Sistani Iraq's Khomeini?

President Bush’s speech Monday at the Army War College was steeped in the realistic perspective that America will need to stay the course in Iraq over the next 18 months as we work to implant a stable government in Baghdad. “There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic,” Bush warned. “Yet our coalition is strong, our efforts are focused and unrelenting, and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq’s progress.”

But as we struggle to transform this conflict from an international military confrontation into a peaceful Iraqi political contest, we need to be as realistic in assessing the political obstacles confronting our efforts to leave Iraq with a benign regime as we are in assessing the military obstacles.

One of those political obstacles is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric.

Policymakers ought to carefully examine the similarities and differences between Sistani and Ayatollah Khomeini, the late Shiite cleric who sparked the Islamic revolution in Iran.

One difference between Khomeini and Sistani is that Khomeini would actually meet with Westerners, including female Western reporters. Sistani won’t even meet with Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

This may be explained by an entry on Sistani’s English language Web site. Discussing things that are “najis,” which he defines in a glossary as “impure,” and things that are “pak,” which he defines as “clean,” Sistani says: “As regards people of the Book (i.e. the Jews and the Christians) . . . they are commonly considered najis, but it is not improbable that they are Pak. However it is better to avoid them.”

Another difference between Khomeini and Sistani is that when Khomeini communicated with the West in the days before the Iranian revolution, he made soothing noises about free elections, political pluralism and women’s rights. When Sistani communicates with the West today, he speaks about free elections (which would empower his own Iraqi Shiite base, which makes up 65 percent of Iraq’s population), but he doesn’t tout pluralism or women’s rights. Indeed, Sistani won’t endorse Iraq’s draft constitution because it gives Iraqi Kurds a chance to veto Shiite political domination and because it doesn’t guarantee that Islamic law will be the basis of Iraqi government.

Last November, Sistani ally Abdul Aziz al Hakim explained the ayatollah’s objection to a U.S. plan to hold caucuses to pick an interim government. “There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq,” he said.

In April, The New York Times reported: “Ayatollah Sistani’s supporters want Islam to govern such matters as family law, divorce and women’s rights.”

Where does Sistani stand on these issues? Postings on his Web site include prescriptions for temporary marriage (“In a fixed time marriage, the period of matrimony is fixed, for example, matrimonial relation is contracted with a woman for an hour, or a day, or a month, or a year, or more.”); keeping wives indoors (“It is forbidden for the wife of a permanent marriage to go out without her husband’s permission.”); and multiple marriages and divorces (“A man is not permitted to marry more than four women by way of permanent marriage. He also has the right to divorce his wives.”)

Khomeini may have shared Sistani’s values here, but his pre-revolutionary propaganda was better packaged for the West.

In November 1978, for example, Dorothy Gilliam of The Washington Post “Style” section interviewed Khomeini, who was then living in exile in France. While noting that Khomeini’s aides “order Western women journalists to cover their heads and shoulders” before meeting him, she dutifully recorded that the ayatollah himself said, “In Islamic society women will be free to choose their own destiny and activity. God created us equally.”

That same month, Washington Post correspondent Ronald Koven also interviewed Khomeini and some of Khomeini’s aides. “The aides say he rejects the authoritarian models of Islamic republicanism in much of the Arab world. Iran is not an Arab country,” wrote Koven. “The aide quoted Khomeini as saying, ‘In the history of Islam, those who denied God were free to express themselves.’ This, said the aide, is Khomeini’s way of saying all political parties would be legal in his vision of an Islamic republic to be established in a national referendum.”

Why did the man who installed a theocracy in Iran in 1979 say these things in France in 1978? Perhaps he was practicing “taqiyya,” the Shiite doctrine that Grand Ayatollah Sistani blandly defines on his Web site as: “Dissimulation about one’s beliefs in order to protect oneself, family, or property from harm.” Sistani has written an unpublished treatise on this doctrine. Is it wise to assume he is not practicing it today in his dealings with a U.S. occupational force?

Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, a strong advocate of installing democracy in Iraq, wrote in The Weekly Standard last month that Sistani “virtually has a de facto veto over American actions” there. If so, it’s the wrong veto in the wrong hands.

If we want to leave an Iraq that is at peace with itself and the world, we will need to find a way to give Iraqis who oppose the ayatollah’s theocratic vision a veto over him.