Iran’s religious presence here sometimes extends to where the lines that separate faith, politics, and power begin to blur.
Images of Iran’s supreme leader and the late Imam Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, are common sights. So are posters of the Iranian-backed militia that played a key role in fighting ISIS in Iraq.
The sheer number of Iranians here creates the impression that Iran, its government and its leadership have huge influence in Iraq, and perhaps even intervening in Iraqi affairs, something that has very much alarmed Washington.
But during our visit here, we learned that Iran’s influence is not as clear-cut, not as simple, and not as extensive as many in Washington describe.
There are powerful barriers to Iran’s influence in Iraq. Among them is Iranian-born cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani is Iraq’s highest religious authority. His roughly 20 million Shia followers say he strives to keep religion separate from politics and supports an inclusive Iraqi democracy.
Sistani is increasingly viewed as a rival to Iran’s top religious authority, the anti-U.S. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmad Lashkari is a senior cleric within the Sistani movement. Lashkari says the movement stands firm against any political influence from Iran or any other country.