The Widening Divide Among Iran's Clerics
02 Jul 2009 12:04
The rift in the clerical establishment
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 30 June 2009
As the Iranian government crisis enters its 19th day, fissures among the clerics are gradually becoming deeper and more visible. These differences between hard-liners and leftists go back to 1988, but what has been surprising is the reaction of moderate clerics and the silence of clerical hard-liners.
The importance of the emerging fissures in the ranks of the clerics is not that the leftist clerics are supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi in his confrontation with the hard-liners, but that the fissures are developing even among the ranks of the conservative ayatollahs and influential clerics who were usually supportive of Ayatollah Khamenei -- or at least silent in order to present a seemingly united front against the leftist faction, as well as the reformist and democratic groups.
The clerics in Qom and Mashhad recognize that there is much more at stake than a disputed election. They see an existential threat to the entire Islamic Republic as they mull their decision whether to support the official result, protest it or continue to remain silent.
The clerics who support the unification of church and state -- those who support the concept of Velaayat-e Faghih [the governance of the Islamic jurist, the Supreme Leader or the Faghih], the backbone of Iran's power structure -- see that by coming down most definitively on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's side, Ayatollah Khamenei may no longer be considered to be above the fray, or even feign impartiality. He has now become just another politician subject to criticism. This is damaging, not only to the concept of Velaayat-e Faghih, but also to the whole concept of Mahdi, the hidden 12th Imam, who is supposed to come back some day to save the world from injustice, corruption and chaos. How can the "deputy" of the hidden Imam be as fallible as the next politician?
In the view of many in the clerical class, Ayatollah Khamenei's actions have been problematic, especially his response to the huge demonstrations that took place to protest the rigged election:
1) He did not wait for the Guardian Council to officially certify the election results; he very quickly declared them valid.
2) He said the 85% turnout indicated how politically mature the population was and showed how satisfied they were with the political system. (He failed to note that the same politically mature and "satisfied" population staged huge demonstrations protesting the votes and the government that he supports). This hard-line position of his effectively quashed the most famous quote by Ayatollah Khomeini, Mizaan ra'ye mardom ast [the true measure of (acceptance) is people's vote].
3) He emphasized the rule of law, while neglecting all the violations of the same law by Ahmadinejad's government and supporters. (All of these have been eloquently described and enumerated by Mousavi in his statements.)
4) He "recommended" that Mousavi pursue his complaints through the Guardian Council [the Constitutional body that vets the candidates and certifies the validity of the elections], while declaring at the same time that the election was valid, hence leaving little room for the Council to change the election results, even if it wanted to by finding enough evidence of fraud to declare the election invalid.
5) He threatened that if people were to demonstrate, any bloodshed and violence would be their own fault -- the fault of unarmed demonstrators pitted against heavily armed security forces -- and their leaders, Mousavi and Karroubi.
Since the incompetence of the Ahmadinejad administration, at least when it comes to managing the economy and certain aspects of foreign policy, is beyond dispute, by supporting the current president, Ayatollah Khamenei essentially declared his belief in Ahmadinejad-ism. Indeed, in his sermon on July 19, he declared that Ahmadinejad's views are closer to his own than those of others, and that certain people [meaning Ahmadinejad], in his opinion, are more suited to serve the country.
And, of course, those clerics who are opposed to the concept of Valaayat-e Faghih and believe that the ayatollahs must not intervene in politics (other than being spiritual guides), such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq and his large following in Iran, or those who believe that the Supreme Leader has been granted too much power and must be brought under control, such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, have found Ayatollah Khamenei's actions to be solid reasons for the validity of their arguments.
Clerical reformers against Ayatollah Khamenei:
Tehran Bureau has already reported on the protests of several senior ayatollahs against the rigged election and its aftermath (read: "Grand Ayatollah Declares Three Days of National Mourning"). Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of two most important marja' taghlids [source of emulation] in Shiite Islam, strongly attacked the government, rejected the results of the rigged election, and called on people to continue their protests peacefully. This was not the first time Montazeri has criticized Iran's government.
In 1997, shortly after President Khatami's landslide victory, Montazeri made a famous speech on Velaayat-e Faghih, in which he courageously criticized Ayatollah Khamenei by saying that the Supreme Leader should not intervene in the affairs of the state and leave them to the president. Likening many of the Friday prayer imams in the Islamic Republic to Aakhoond Darbaari [a pre-Revolution phrase referring to clerics on the Shah's payroll], he warned people not to confuse them with genuine religious leaders. [Watch the speech on YouTube.]
Ayatollah Sayyed Jalaloddin Taheri, an important reformist cleric who had been appointed the leader of the Friday prayers in the city of Isfahan by Ayatollah Khomeini right after the 1979 Revolution, has declared the election fraudulent, and the next Ahmadinejad term as illegitimate and tantamount to thievery. Taheri resigned as the leader of Friday prayers in Isfahan in 2002, protesting, in a highly publicized letter, what he called the terrible state of the nation. His letter provoked a direct rebuttal from Ayatollah Khamenei himself. Ayatollah Taheri strongly supported Mousavi in the presidential election.
In his statement, Taheri said he was witnessing "how the old enemies of Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] who opposed the establishment of the Islamic Republic are now presenting themselves as the ideologues of the Revolution."
"Did Imam believe that those who must be neutral in the election publicly support a particular candidate [Ahmadinejad]?" Taheri asked. "Did Imam allow the use of public resources for a particular candidate? Has religion given [the hard-liners] the permission [to do what they have done]? Why is it that the law is only supportive of you [referring to Ayatollah Khamenei's contention that the law must be implemented, and that the public protests are illegal]?"
Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, a senior member of the Association of Militant Clerics (AMC), has urged Mousavi to resist the official election result, so "insulting people and disrespecting the laws would not become the norm in the country."
The AMC backed Mousavi in the recent election. Ayatollah Zanjani warned the Judiciary that if it cannot address the rightful complaints of the people, they will seek out alternative ways to recover their rights."God forbid, the final destination of which will be chaos, insecurity and insulting religion," he said. He went on to declare that, "peaceful gathering and demonstrations are people's rights, which have been recognized by [article 27 of] the Constitution." He also accused the government of deviating from Ayatollah Khomeini's "path and thoughts."
Ayatollah Sayyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, who was Chief Prosecutor under Ayatollah Khomeini, strongly attacked the government for its mishandling of the election. In an interview with a pro-Ahmadinejad Web site, he declared that the Guardian Council was biased and that people have a right to demonstrate.
"Ask me about the law," Tabrizi said when he was reminded that Ayatollah Khamenei had forbidden further demonstrations. "I have nothing to do with them [the Supreme Leader and his supporters]. The Leader has expressed his own opinion, but I am talking about the law.
"The  Revolution also occurred due to such talks [by the government]. The Shah also called the [demonstrating] people rioters. It was due to such reasons that the Shah's regime was illegitimate. If it had not talked that way [calling people rioters] and had given the people their rights, it would not have become illegitimate. It does not make any difference who denies the people their rights. Whoever does that is illegitimate."
He then mocked the fact that the number of votes cast in Ray (a town in the southern part of Tehran) was twice the number of eligible voters there.
Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, another close and senior aid to Ayatollah Khomeini, declared, "force should not be used to quell people's protests. You [the government] must listen to people and their protests against the election. Let the people express their opinions. The response to [the protests by] the people must be convincing to them."
Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, a progressive cleric and a confidante of Ayatollah Khomeini, declared that Ahmadinejad was not the legitimate president and cooperation with him, as well as working for him, were haraam (against Islam and a great sin). He also declared that any changes in the votes by unlawful means were also haraam.
Hadi Ghaffari, a mid-rank cleric, strongly criticized Ayatollah Khamenei in a recent speech. His father was also an ayatollah killed by the Shah's government, and he himself was jailed for many years before the 1979 Revolution. In the early years of the Revolution he was a hard-liner, but gradually changed his position; he has been strongly supportive of the reformists for many years. He was incredibly brazen in his criticisms of Ayatollah Khamenei. An audiotape of his speech was leaked and posted on YouTube, but has apparently been removed.
Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, who was the first Secretary-General of the Guardian Council after the Revolution, met with some members of the Council and expressed regrets for what had happened.
"I have some important things to say, but cannot for now," he told the Council's members. Part of the meeting was in secret, but he said in the public part of the meeting that, "We should have acted in a way that these issues would not have come up. We should have moderated our positions and opinions."
Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani also held a secret meeting with Grand Ayatollah Mousa Shobeiri Zanjani, and reviewed the latest developments; little about their meeting has been publicized.
Clerical supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei:
To be sure, Ayatollah Khamenei still has many supporters among the conservative clergy. When he was appointed the Supreme Leader in June 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei was neither an ayatollah nor a marja' taghlid [source of emulation]; under the Constitution, the Supreme Leader had to be both. So, not only was the Constitution revised in order to allow Ayatollah Khamenei to become the Supreme Leader, but he also needed the support of the senior clerics to be elevated to those ranks.
Those who supported Ayatollah Khamenei were mostly the conservative and ultra-conservative clerics. Their support of him was instrumental in his transformation from a progressive with an appreciation for the arts and literature, and even playing the taar -- a fretted lute with six strings -- into the conservative cleric he has become.
The senior clerics who support Ayatollah Khamenei today are those who have held, or currently hold, key positions in the government. They include Ahmad Jannati, Secretary-General of the Guardian Council; Mohammad Yazdi, former Judiciary chief; Khazali, former member of the Guardian Council; Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, head of the Supreme Court, who ordered the execution of two of his own children in 1981; Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the Judiciary chief; Mohammad Mohammadi Rayshahri, former Minister of Intelligence whose real last name is Mohammadi-Nik; Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, head of the ACC and former Prime Minister; Ebrahimi Amini, leader of Friday prayers of Qom; Mohammad Emami Kashani, Tehran's temporary leader of Friday prayers; Hossein Nouri Hamadani, a hard-line instructor in Qom's seminary; and Masih Mohajeri, editor-in-chief of the Islamic Republic, a daily that was founded by Ayatollah Khamenei himself. These are mostly senior figures among the clerics, many of them over 60 years old, with Jannati and Mahdavi Kani being the most influential among them.
There are also mid-rank, middle age clerics, such as Ghorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, the Attorney General and former Intelligence Minister; Mostafa Pourmohammadi, former Interior and Intelligence Minister, who has been implicated in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988; Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, Intelligence Minister; Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, former Speaker of the Majles and head of the Supreme Leader's Office of Inspection; Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts (no relation to former president Mohammad Khatami); Ali Razini, senior figure in the Judiciary, also implicated in the executions of the summer of 1988; Ebrahim Raeisi, implicated in the summer 1988 executions, and chief deputy to Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the Judiciary chief; Ruhollah Hosseinian, a Majles deputy and head of Center for Islamic Revolution Documents; Ali Fallahian, a Majles deputy and former Intelligence Minister; and others.
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makaaren Shirazi, who has often supported the conservatives in the past, emphasized that the difficulties should be overcome wisely, rationally, and with attention to the future of the political system.
"The action to be taken must not leave any fire under the surface ash, and must transform pessimism to optimism and competition to friendship and cooperation between all the [political] groups," Shirazi said.
It is interesting to note that Ayatollah Makaarem Shirazi was one of the earliest opponents of the Velaayat-e Faghih concept. He changed his mind, however, after reportedly being offered significant aid for his seminary. But, given the events in the country and Ahmadinejad's track record, he has also felt the danger and has been increasingly speaking of the "independence of Qom's theological schools" from the government.
"The basis for everything is the law," declared Grand Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli -- uncle of Ali Larijani, the Majles Speaker -- in a speech during the Friday prayers in Qom on June 26. "But, the person who is supposed to execute the law declares that, 'what I do is exactly according to the law,' and it is him who decides what is lawful. This is problematic," he said, hence seemingly referring to Ayatollah Khamenei and/or Ahmadinejad. He continued his thinly disguised criticism of the hard-liners by saying, "We must preserve religion, the howzah [the seminaries], and the maja'eeyat [the concept of emulation]. If any difference arises, these must be protected," he said, warning that the hard-liners risk destroying the entire basis of Iran's government by cracking down on protesters.
Even Ayatollah Mohyyodin Haeri-Shirazi, an ultra-conservative who is a member of the Assembly of Experts, wrote a highly cryptic and complex letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, as if he was trying to tell him something with coded words.
Perhaps the most important clerical supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei are Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, Ayatollah Khoshvaght, and Ayatollah Khamenei's own son, Mojtaba, a mid-ranking cleric.
The mysterious figure not known to most Iranians is Ayatollah Khoshvaght. Ayatollah Khamenei's third son, Mostafa, is married to his daughter. He is a member of the Assembly of Experts, and in July 2007 ran for its presidency, which he lost to Rafsanjani. He is the prayer leader of a large mosque in northern Tehran, and is a radical hard-liner. It is believed, but never proven, that Saeed Emami, the notorious figure who was responsible for the infamous Chain Murders in 1998-1999, which resulted in the murder of six Iranian dissidents (and most likely many more murders from 1988-1998), was a follower of Ayatollah Khoshvaght. He is also said to be close to Ansaar-e Hezbollah, a radical group often unleashed to quell demonstrations.
Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual leader of Ahmadinejad, is an ultra-conservative cleric who runs the Haghani Seminary and Imam Khomeini Educational Institute in Qom, which received $7 million in aid from the government in 2008. Ayatollah Khamenei has referred to Yazdi as "our era's Motahhari" -- a reference to Ayatollah Sayyed Morteza Motahhari, a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini and a distinguished Islamic scholar who was assassinated a few months after the February 1979 Revolution -- a great compliment, even though Motahhari's and Yazdi's thinking are the opposite of each other! Ahmadinejad's first Vice President (Iran has eight vice presidents), Parviz Davoodi, is a disciple of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, as are the Intelligence Minister, Mohseni Ejehei, and the Cabinet's "morality teacher," Agha-Tehrani.
However, even these conservative ayatollahs who are closest to the government have been suspiciously silent since the election. Almost none of them have congratulated Ahmadinejad. Even Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi has been unusually silent. (Read more on Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi in "Leaders of Iran's election coup" and "Assembly of Experts").
Meanwhile the nation waited to see what Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and powerful politician, would do as many believe that the current crisis is partly a manifestation of the long-time rivalry between him and the Supreme Leader. He appeared to be defending the political establishment and performing a perfunctory bow to the Supreme Leader on June 28, the 28th anniversary of the bombing of the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party that killed many leaders and important figures of the Revolution; but he also criticized those who supervised the election. But, it is widely known that he has visited Qom to warn the clerics that the crisis is much deeper than the disputed election. So, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he is sitting on the fence to see what happens next. (Read more on Rafsanjani: "Rafsanjani's Next Move" and "Who Will Lead?")
Given all the developments listed above, one thing is for sure: Iranian politics will never be the same. Since the run up to the election, many lines have been crossed, many taboos broken, and the position of the Supreme Leader has fallen to earth. It is no longer a Godly position, as the hard-liners have always claimed. That, in the long run, can only be a positive development for Iran. Most importantly, the inherent contradiction between the concept of Velaayat-e Faghih and republicanism in Iran's Constitution (electing the president, the parliament, and the city councils), which has always existed, has finally come to the fore.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau