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Iran Editor's Uncalculated Criticism Of Ayatollah Sistani Puts His Career On Verge of Collapse

A commentary by Hossein Shariatmadari, a hardline newspaper editor in Iran about a meeting between Ayatollah Ali Sistani and a representative from the United Nations has stirred controversy in Iraq and deeply embarrassed Iranian officials in Tehran.

In the Saturday September 26 commentary, Shariatmadari, the managing editor of hardline daily Kayhan, funded by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's office, harshly criticized prominent Shiite Cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani for calling on the United Nations to supervise Iraq's parliamentary elections.

Shariatmadari opined that the demand made by Sistani belittles the status of Shiite clerics and that it is the UN that should seek help from Sistani not vice versa.

He further described the UN as "a tool in the hands of arrogant powers, particularly the United States," and added that the call made by Sistani "undermined Iraq's independence."

On September 28 several Iraqi officials including the country's current and former Presidents and Prime Ministers as well as some of Iran's traditional supporters in Iraq such as Nuri al-Maliki strongly criticized Shariatmadari and characterized his commentary as "rude" and "disrespectful."

Shariatmadari's words hit the Iraqis really hard particularly because he is Khamenei's representative in the Kayhan and also because his words are usually believed to show Khamemnei's thinking.

The spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh on Sunday tried to distance the government from the Kayhan's "opinion" and insisted that Iran respects Sistani and his status as a grand ayatollah. However, the explanation did not seem to have convinced the Iraqis as protests among officials in Baghdad continued.

On Tuesday September 29, IRGC Qods Force Commander Esmail Ghaani reiterated the same position and praised Sistani for his role in Iraq's independence and security.

Hossein Shariatmadari. FILE photo

Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline editor of Kayhan

Unlike Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali Sistani believes in the separation of religion from state and his position has been a key element that fostered a relative peace among various Iraqi groups some of which are loyal to the Islamic Republic and follow Khamenei's ideological lead. However, following the killing of former Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in January Iran is said to have lost most of its influence in Iraq.

In the meantime, Shariatmadari has been widely criticized in Iran for his comments about Sistani who is generally considered as the highest-ranking Shiite cleric.

Reformist daily Etemad in its Tuesday edition described Shariatmadari's commentary as "a dictation with many mistakes," and the daily's leading foreign policy columnist Sarah Massoumi accused Shariatmadari of imposing unnecessary costs on Iran at a time when relations between Tehran and Baghdad are highly sensitive.

Comments in moderate conservative news website Fararu writing about the controversy said, "No one reads this newspaper or knows its editor. Even if one of the Muslim saints emerged somewhere in today's world, the Kayhan would undoubtedly criticize him. Singling out Shariatmadari, the paper said, "You cannot expect anything else from someone who calls everyone a spy and insults everyone from Cyrus the Great to contemporary politicians and yet enjoys immunity before the law."

Some observers have said that Shariatmadari's comments reflect his fear of international institution's inspection of elections in Iraq and later in Iran if such inspections become commonplace.

One criticism against Kayhan and its editor was made on Twitter by Iranian journalist Farid Modarresi, who is a member of President Rouhani's team of media advisers. He wrote:

 "When Shariatmadari became Kayhan's editor, the paper's circulation was 250,000. The daily's current circulation is less than 5,000 copies a day. Such a management is a wonderful phenomenon in the history of the press in Iran and the world!"

Many Iranian journalists and politicians whom Shariatmadari has attacked, usually with no justification during the past decades, are keenly following the case to see if the mistake by the master of hate speech in Iranian media would put an end to his career as Khamenei's representative or once again his immunity will save him from trouble.

For the first time in his long career Shariatmadari has apologized after a few days of hesitation. But this might be too little, too late.

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