Iraq's elected leaders are moving toward clerical rule while in Iran a leading Shiite cleric, who advocates secular rule, suffers in prison.
The Sunnis of Al Qaeda and the ruling Shiites of Iran – despite their different brands of Islam – have one thing in common. They both believe in public religion, or rule by Muslim clerics. Their attempt to impose political theology lies at the heart of the Muslim debate over democracy.
It also has violent consequences for Americans.
As US forces begin an exit from Iraq, neighboring Iran has stepped up support of attacks on American soldiers. June was the deadliest month for the United States there since 2008, with most attacks blamed on insurgents using weapons from Iran.
Such Iranian-backed violence would not be happening if Iraq’s elected government weren’t drifting toward an Islamic state like that in Iran.
To stay in power, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had to rely on the political support of a group run by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is aligned with Iran. But more than that, Mr. Maliki recently shifted the religious authority of his Dawa Party away from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who advocates a separation of Islam from government.
Now Maliki looks for religious guidance from Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric in Iran who backs the theory of velayat-e-faqih, or political leadership by Shiite clergy.
Unless Iraq’s majority Shiites – especially Mr. Sistani – demand a firm line between mosque and state, Iraq could be losing its hard-won democracy. Iran would be the winner, and the US withdrawal from Iraq could be even more difficult.