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Iran: The Post-Election Challenge from Qom's Clerics 

Iran: The “Ghaffari Tape” Criticising the Supreme Leader
The Latest from Iran (1 July): The Opposition Regroups

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QOMIn the furour over the Presidential election, the most intriguing political contest may have taken place, behind the street scenes, in Iran's religious centre, south of Tehran in the dusty city of Qom.

Within 72 hours of the 12 June vote, the clerics of Qom's seminaries had taken their place on the political stage. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani tried to mobilise them for a public challenge to President Ahmadinejad's victory. That initial attempt failed; indeed it is a key reasons why Rafsanjani then kept a careful silence before an equally careful, "balanced" return to public life with his speech last Sunday. There would be no mass movement of the religious leadership behind any campaign. Instead, factions already aligned to particular political movements would reassert their positions. The Association of Combatant Clerics would ally itself with the efforts of former President Mohammad Khatami and, thus, Mir Hossein Mousavi; Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, prominent on the Guardian Council, would bolster Ahmadinejad's position.

As the public demonstrations against the election swell, some Western media noted the possible significance of Qom, indeed over-dramatising a possible "split" in the Iranian system; conversely, as the public challenge has been contained, notions of a clerical challenge receded. That, too, is a mistake: the debate not only over the election but over the guardianship of Iran's Islamic Revolution continues.

While there still has been no significant show of support for the President (note Press TV's slightly strained attempt this morning, via an interview with a clerical member of Parliament, to say, "No one is talking about the election anymore), opposition has emerged in scattered but sometimes dramatic ways. The criticism of Ayatollah Montazeri, the one-time successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, was to be expected; the current regime, led by Montazeri's replacement, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, still keeps the cleric under house arrest. He is not alone, however. Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani has claimed that the Iranian system is moving away from Khomeini's path and thoughts. Ayatollam Mousavi-Ardebili has criticised violence against the protestors and said recent events have weakened Iran's political and religious institutions. Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli has expressed displeasure. Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi and Ayatollah Sane’i have made gentler interventions, and Ayatollah Haeri-Shirazi has written a careful but still challenging letter to the Supreme Leader. There are reports of "secret" meetings between Ayatollahs to consider developments and longer-term prospects.

The most dramatic challenge has come in a statement by Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari on Ayatollah Khamenei. The leaked
audio on YouTube
has created a stir with Ghaffari's criticism of the Supreme Leader's post-election conduct: Khamenei has ruined the honour of clerics with his handling of the political situation. (First reports said that Ghaffari had gone as far as to insult Khamenei as a "corpse-washer".) The ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution are not being defended but destroyed.

None of this points to a Qom-led coup against President Ahmadinejad and, more importantly, Khamenei. On the other hand, these concerns are part of a much wider, more significant story of years past and years to come.

The Western caricature of Iran is that of a "theocracy" in which the "mullahs" hold power, working with secular politicians. That misconception misses the reality that a large section of Iran's clerical establishment are no friends of Ahmadinejad, whose policies and pronouncements have been seen as a challenge to the Iran envisaged by Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, it is not even accurate to speak on a unified clerical movement behind the Supreme Leader, whose selection in 1989 was a surprise to many --- given his relative junior status --- and has been seen as a triumph of politicians (ironically, given recent events, as part of manoeuvres by Hashemi Rafsanjani for authority) rather than a religious succession.

No surprise then that another video has supposedly resurfaced, this one of Ayatollah Montazeri considering the Iranian system of clerical authority, Velayat-e-Faqih, as he criticises Ayatollah Khameini. The text is clear: religion's true and proper place in the growth of the Islamic Republic has become "politicised" and thus corrupted.

And that is why the Presidential vote has a lasting significance, whatever happens in the near future with the demonstrations. Those ballot boxes are a symbol of the wider corruption that Montazeri claimed was undermining the Revolution. And, long after they have been put away, their symbolism --- whatever actually happened on 12 June --- remains.

As pne of our correspondents noted, after a lengthy glance at Qom last week, "This is not over."

Reader Comments (2)

The Association (Majma) of Combatant Clerics is a reformist body in which Khatami is one of the key leaders, so its position is no surprise--it should not be confused with another group with a very similar name (Jamieh): for differences see wikipedia amongst other places.

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbbas Barzegar


Thank you very much. I agree that the Majma's position, as it is predictable, does not pose a special challenge to the Government. My (outsider's) interest is whether the qualms expressed by other clerics raises uncertainty.


July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

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