Michael Ledeen notes some excellent and striking analysis bt Steve Schippert at Threatswatch.
–Fifth, that there are cracks in the regime’s edifice, ranging from declarations of small groups of Revolutionary Guards calling on their brothers to defect to “the people,” to a phenomenon that is just beginning to be discussed here and there, mostly on the Net but originally in an Arab newspaper. Steve Schippert posted on it and did a first-class analysis. Steve starts with a report from al Arabiya that says senior ayatollahs have been meeting secretly in Qom to discuss significant changes in the structure of the Iranian state. In addition to the Iranian clerics, there was a foreigner: Jawad al-Shahristani, the supreme representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the foremost Shiite leader in Iraq.
If this is true, it is, as Steve says, huge. Because it means that senior religious leaders in Iran are talking to the representative of an Iraqi Imam who believes, as most Shi’ites did before Khomeini’s heresy, that the proper role of religious leaders is to guide their people from the mosque, not from the political capital. In other words, they are talking about the most serious form of regime change.
My ears first perked up when word made it through the grapevines over the weekend that Rafsanjani had been meeting with other Ayatollahs and clerics in Qom, and had among them a representative of Iraq's Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Why? Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2007 made two very critical statements: that "I am a servant of all Iraqis, there is no difference between a Sunni, a Shiite or a Kurd or a Christian," and that Islam can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. You will never hear such words slip past the lips of Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. Ever.
In November 2007 at National Review Online, I wrote about this aspect of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, including a reference to another analysis I had written earlier in the spring.
In fact, what exists is a deep rivalry between the revolutionary Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the traditionalist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, both claiming authority over the Shi'a faith. While the Khomeinist revolutionary Khameini clearly believes in Shi'a theocracy, the Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani believes that the faith can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. And while the Iranians work to spin the growing Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda as Americans "negotiating with terrorists," Sistani himself has always had open channels of communication with American forces and the Iraqi government.
Why does this matter for Iran and Iranians? Pay close attention here, for Iraq's Sistani carries great weight among the Iranian Shi'a faithful.
Sistani's appeal does not end at the Iraqi border, as Iranians increasingly observe his leadership with interest and fondness. Some are "intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi'ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq," which is fundamentally different in approach than the Iranian theocratic brand of dictated observance and obedience. The Boston Globe's Anne Barnard reports that within Tehran's own central bazaar, "an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric."
Go read all of the piece, but the pure flavor is that Iraqi liberal democracy is compatible with Islam and the Iranian people are noticining how much better that is. Are we seeing the first examples of vindication of George W Bush? Maybe, time will tell, but the signs Steve mentions are clear and telling evidence especially alongside the actions of the people willing to die to live free.