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In Rare Move, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani Receives Rouhani

Iraqi influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani meeting with Iran's President Hassan Rohani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on March 13, 2019.

Before wrapping up his official visit to Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani was granted a rare audience with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian-born Shi’ite cleric based in Iraq, and one of the highest religious authorities in the Shi’ite world.

Sistani rarely meets officials, and the exception he made for Rouhani marked the first time the ayatollah has met with a sitting Iranian president. He rejected an offer to meet with Rouhani’s predecessor, hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his 2008 visit to Iraq.

The 88-year-old Sistani has also rebuffed an envoy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Chairman of the Iranian Expediency Council Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.

Iraq-born Shahroudi was reportedly supported by Khamenei and his conservative cleric allies in Iran to succeed Sistani after the ayatollah’s death, however Shahroudi died last December.

Earlier, Shahroudi's predecessor as the chairman of the powerful Expediency Discernment Council (EDC), Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had succeeded to win an audience with Sistani in 2009.

Referring to Sistani as a “Sayyid,” (a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad), Rafsanjani said at the time, “For a long time, visiting Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani was a yearning for me, and the meeting was historic and so valuable.”

Echoing Rafsanjani's phrases, the Islamic Republic's English-speaking television, Press TV, also described Rouhani's meeting with Sistani as "historic" and a "landmark."

Rouhani met Ayatollah Sistani at his residence in the city of Najaf, after visiting the shrine of Imam Ali, the first Imam of Shi'ite Muslims.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was also in attendance. During the meeting, the Iranian president briefed Ayatollah Sistani on his discussions with Iraqi officials, as well as agreements about the further promotion of Tehran-Baghdad ties.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Sistani welcomed any effort aimed at improving Iraq’s ties with its neighbors based on mutual interests, non-interference, and respect for national sovereignty.

Furthermore, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who reportedly supports separation of the state from religious institutions, said fighting corruption and promoting public services were now the significant challenges facing Iraq.

Sistani's office has reported that it financially supports 35,000 students in the cities of Qom, 10,000 in Mashhad, and 4,000 in Isfahan, in Iran. Additionally, Sistani has a substantial following within Shia communities all over the world and is the current Grand "Marja" or source of emulation of the Twelver sect of Shi'ites.

Following the opening of the Shi’ite religious cities in Iraq of Najaf and Karbala to Iranian pilgrims after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iraqi President Hussein in 2003, many Iranian pilgrims return from the cities as supporters of Sistani, according to Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a Senior Fellow in foreign policy at Brookings Institution, Vali Nasr, making the ayatollah a an influential figure in Iranian society.