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Khamenei Coerces Qom into Submission

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

01 Nov 2010 19:01Comments
woman+holds+a+picture+of+Iranian+supreme+leader+Ayatollah+Ali+Khamenei,+during+an+anti-Israel+demonstration,+after+Friday+prayers,+in+Tehran,+Iran,+Friday,+Oct.+9,+2009.jpgBut fails in efforts to arouse massive public outpouring, major religious recognition.

[ analysis ] Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei's fourth official trip to Qom, one of the world's two great centers of Shiism (the other is Najaf, in Iraq), finally took place after much planning and preparation. Throughout his reign, Khamenei has made many secret trips to Qom to talk to his allies in the seminaries there, and at the beginning of every Iranian New Year he travels to the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. But his latest official trip to Qom was very different from those in the past, due to the surrounding circumstances. The trip was meant to demonstrate to the world that Khamenei is in command, is still popular, is supported by the senior clerics, and is recognized as a Marja taghlid (source of emulation for the masses).

Unlike his predecessor as Supreme Leader -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- Khamenei has never had his own independent base of popular support. He did not belong to Khomeini's inner circle, nor was he an original member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council that Khomeini formed in January 1979 to prepare for the transition from the monarchic rule of the Pahlavi dynasty to the Islamic Republic. He was brought into the council only later and given a relatively junior position, deputy minister of defense. He had the rank of hojatoleslam, one grade below an ayatollah, and much less significant than a grand ayatollah.

When Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader, held an emergency session to select his successor. The first choice was Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1895-1993), one of that era's two foremost Marjas taghlid and highly respected by Khomeini. But he did not receive the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of the assembly. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- the main power broker of the time -- proposed that, instead of choosing a new Supreme Leader, the assembly select a leadership council to oversee the country, consisting of himself, Ahmad Khomeini (1945-1995) (the ayatollah's youngest son), Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (a close aide to Khomeini who is now allied with the reformists), Ayatollah Ali Meshkini (1922-2007), and Hojatoleslam Khamenei.

When the leadership council notion was rejected by the assembly, Rafsanjani turned to Khamenei as his candidate for Supreme Leader due to their long friendship and the fact that he considered Khamenei weak in religious credentials and therefore pliable. Assisted by Ahmad Khomeini, Rafsanjani cooked up a statement supposedly uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini. According to this "quotation," Khomeini had indicated that he thought Khamenei was qualified to be the next Supreme Leader, even though no one recognized him as an ayatollah and many, including his own teachers in the Qom and Mashhad seminaries, did not consider him even a mojtahed (one who has the authority to interpret Islamic teachings). No one else has ever claimed to have heard Khomeini offer any such view. I doubt the authenticity of the quote, given the tense relationship between the two men.

Hojatoleslam Khamenei was appointed as Supreme Leader and thus, overnight, became Ayatollah Khamenei, though he was not recognized as such by the grand ayatollahs and independent clergy of the era. The leading grand ayatollahs, Golpayegani and Mohammad Ali Araki (1895-1994), sent him congratulatory telegrams that referred to him as hojatoleslam. This left a lasting impression on Khamenei, making it clear to him that he needed to be recognized as a Marja if he was going to have legitimacy in the theocratic system. He consequently decided to make the Qom seminaries reliant on him for financial resources, hence destroying the main pillar of Shiism -- the independence of the religious establishment from centers of political power. Lacking any popular base of support and the sort of charisma and authority with which Khomeini was endowed, Khamenei began relying on the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence apparatus, paramilitary vigilante groups, and right-wing clerics to advance his agenda. At the same time, it is widely believed that Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Musa Shobeiri Zanjani and Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi regularly visited him at his home, teaching him the fundamentals of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), of which he had little knowledge.

The first true opportunity for Khamenei's allies to promote him to a Marja with the Qom seal of approval presented itself after Araki passed away in 1994. A new list of the recognized Marjas was supposed to be publicized. This in itself was new; the tradition had been to announce only the name of the foremost Marja. Much pressure was applied on the seminaries, including demonstrations by vigilante groups, to put Khamenei's name on the list of the seven Marjas. When the list was finally publicized, his name was fourth on the list. But only the ultra-reactionary Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi recognized Khamenei's marjaeiyat (Marja status). That did not bestow upon Khamenei the legitimacy that he had sought. His office subsequently announced that he would not publish a resaleh amaliye (the book written by each Marja that addresses various religious problems that his followers may confront) for people in Iran, and would answer religious questions only from those living abroad.

A new shadow was cast on Khamenei's religious credentials in the fall of 1997, just a few months after Mohammad Khatami's landslide victory in the presidential election, which had shaken the Supreme Leader and the hardliners. Belying what his office had announced in 1994, Khamenei had been acting like a Marja on the domestic scene and publicly answering religious questions posed by the hardliners who were trying to prop him up. On November 16, 1997, one of his original teachers, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009), criticized him severely, saying that he was not qualified to act as a Marja, and also rebuked the hardliners' attempts to control marjaeiyat. Apparently, Khomeini's resaleh had been used by Khamenei to answer religious questions, a major embarrassment.

During the first Tehran Friday Prayers after Montazeri's speech, held on November 21, Khamenei was forced to declare through Rafsanjani that he had no desire to be a Marja and that it was only due to the persistence of his supporters that he had issued some fatwas, or religious edicts. Rafsanjani sarcastically added that Khamenei "did not have the time to study for marjaeiyat, and even if he did, he would still not be able to achieve the status!" In contrast, during the same Friday Prayers, Sheikh Mohammad Yazdi -- who had opposed Khamenei's appointment as Supreme Leader, but had been bought off with the position of judiciary chief -- attacked Montazeri:

You are uninformed [about Khamenei's religious credentials] and just say something baseless. How will you respond to God on the Judgment Day? You think it is easy to question him? You say something on your own, and the people respond to you. If you persist, the people will respond even stronger.

This was an indication that Khamenei was prepared to attack even the most senior clerics and recognized religious authorities -- even his former teachers -- if they opposed him. Montazeri was put under house arrest for over five years, his offices were ransacked, and the banks accounts from which he paid his seminary students were frozen. Even though the detention ended on January 30, 2003, when Montazeri was very ill and the hardliners were terrified by the prospect that he might pass away while still under house arrest, Khamenei never forgave the grand ayatollah. The episode, as well as the rise of the reformist movement, also forced Khamenei to rely even more heavily on the security, military, intelligence, and paramilitary forces to consolidate his power.

Khamenei also recognized that by controlling the Qom seminaries he could bring to power younger clerics who would owe him their positions of power, wealth, and privilege and, therefore, loyalty. He and his allies have thus concentrated their efforts on isolating the independent-minded and progressive clerics that had credibility with the masses and bringing into their inner circle reactionary clerics, among them some of the country's most disreputable religious figures, who have been implicated in many crimes.

02_EP16.jpgThere are very few, if any, clerics who are credible in the eyes of the public and support Khamenei, at least publicly.

Yes, he is supported by the right-wing Jame'eh-ye Modarresin Howzeh Elmiyeh-ye Qom (Association of the Lecturers of Qom's Seminaries), led by the deeply corrupt Sheikh Mohammad Yazdi, and by elements of Jame'eh-ye Ruhaniyat-e Mobaarez-e Tehran (Society of Militant Clerics of Tehran), but these two organizations operate like political parties, rather than true religious organizations, and consist mostly of reactionary clerics with little popular credibility. There is not a single moderate or progressive cleric in any significant position of power. Khamenei is now surrounded by some of the most discredited clerics of the past century, figures truly despised by the people. His inner circle has also shrunk. It has gotten to the point that when it became clear that Hossein Taeb, a reactionary cleric who was the Basij commander last year, had played a leading role in the crimes that had occurred in the Kahrizak detention center, he was simply shifted from the post to another important one, head of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit. Khamenei has no moderate or even credible cleric to turn to.

It was also through his behind-the-scenes efforts that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. Even though Ahmadinejad proved to be highly incompetent and controversial, Khamenei strongly supported him throughout his first term in office. But it was the rigged presidential election of June 2009 that forced Khamenei to openly side with Ahmadinejad, hence reducing himself to the leader of just one faction in Iran's political scene. He did not even wait for the Guardian Council -- which is loyal to him -- to certify the election as legitimate, and he threatened the opposition with bloodshed in a sermon delivered on June 19, during Tehran's Friday Prayers.

There has been extensive debate over whether last year's election was rigged. Much evidence has emerged that points in that direction, ranging from the many irregularities in the election and its aftermath to a speech by a Revolutionary Guard commander in Mashhad last year, in which he described how the Guard and security forces planned for months to disrupt the Reformists' election campaign, to a document leaked from Iran's Supreme National Security Council that described how the Guard commanders viewed the Reformists and their allies prior to the election. Perhaps the most telling evidence was provided just last week by Minister of Intelligence Haydar Moslehi.

Referring to Ahmadinejad's two terms as president, Moslehi acknowledged, "The path that had been designed by the Supreme Leader brought to power the 9th and 10th governments," tacitly conceding the direct role Khamenei played in engineering the two elections. This is indeed the contention of the Reformists.

Khamenei's open support for Ahmadinejad last year, the fact that he permitted violent crackdowns on the peaceful demonstrations in the election's aftermath, and the detention of hundreds of journalists, human rights advocates, Reformist leaders, university students, and even ordinary people greatly undermined the residual legitimacy that he had with the independent clerics in Qom, creating deep fissures in their ranks.

Many important clerics openly criticized the government's response to the popular protests.

Some even criticized the election directly. Montazeri rejected the legitimacy of the election altogether and in a historic fatwa declared that, by his actions against the nation, Khamenei has disqualified himself from continuing as Supreme Leader.

In an unprecedented speech on August 5, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a leader of Tehran's Friday Prayers, a member of the Assembly of Experts, and a loyal Khamenei supporter, said,

Oh, Emam-e Zaman [Mahdi, the 12th Imam whom Shiites believe is hiding and will some day return], although in your absence Velaayat-e Faghih [guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by the Supreme Leader] rules, it is only a dim light. He cannot solve the problems. This is the nation's status; this is the world's status. You must return to address the problem.

This was clearly a reference to Khamenei's inability to address the crisis that the nation was, and still is, facing. Khamenei himself acknowledged that the aftermath of the election had hurt the image of the system that he leads. Most interestingly, even Ahmadinejad has tried to distance himself from Khamenei, with a serious rift developing between the two men.

It therefore became clear to the hardliners that something had to be done to "restore" Khamenei's "credibility" and "prestige," and to demonstrate to the world, and particularly to the nation, that not only is he still in command, but also that he still enjoys wide support both among the masses and the Qom clerical establishment. Thus, many months ago a secret committee was formed to plan for Khamenei's trip to Qom. The central objective was to have the most senior grand ayatollahs and ayatollahs greet him as he entered the holy city, where about 30 Marjas taghlid currently reside. It became quickly clear, however, that aside from Khamenei's reactionary supporters -- such as Sheikh Mohammad Yazdi, Sheikh Ahmad Jannati (secretary-general of the Guardian Council), Mesbah Yazdi, Sheikh Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president), and Sheikh Morteza Moghtadaei -- no credible cleric would agree to that. This did not stop the hardliners from claiming that when Khamenei arrived in Qom, even Imam Mahdi had greeted him.

The next idea was to have the clerics greet Khamenei in the shrine of Ma'soumeh, sister of Imam Reza (the Shiites' eighth Imam, whose shrine is in Mashhad). But the senior clerics balked again. Thus, on Saturday, June 14, 2010, Khamenei secretly traveled to Qom and visited many of the senior clerics at their homes. The tradition is that when someone visits a person at home, the host makes a return visit to the guest's home or office. In essence, Khamenei was trying to force the senior clerics to pay him a visit -- an aim furthered by his recent expedition. During this secret June trip, the order to ransack the office and home of Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei, an ally of the Green Movement, was issued. Khamenei also ordered the security forces to close Montazeri's office under the excuse that he had passed away and that there was thus no need for its continued operation. Meanwhile, the offices of other recently deceased grand ayatollahs, such as Mohammad Taghi Bahjat (1915-2010) -- to whom Khamenei was close -- and the arch-conservative Mohammad Fazel Lankarani (1931-2007), are still operating in Qom.

Another objective was to have a huge crowd of "ordinary" people "spontaneously" gather to greet Khamenei. For this purpose, the Basij forces in towns around Qom were organized and brought to the city. All of their expenses were covered by the government, and they were paid overtime as well. All governmental organizations and schools in Qom were ordered closed and the people were asked to greet Khamenei. All the businesses on the streets along his path were similarly ordered shut, with the government paying for their lost revenue. In addition, a large number of foreign seminary students live in Qom, and they were asked to bring their families out on the streets to greet the Supreme Leader. It is estimated that Khamenei's trip cost about $20 million, a huge sum by any criterion, particularly in Iran.

Despite the government's best efforts, all the available information and the aerial photos and video clips shown on state-controlled television indicate that no more than 40,000 people greeted Khamenei in the streets of Qom (the most accurate estimates were based on Google maps). Compare this with the figure of at least 500,000 who took part in Montazeri's funeral last year, and keep in mind that the participants in that event attended of their own free will.

Was the goal of recognition as a Marja achieved? Kayhan, the daily mouthpiece of the hardliners, made it clear that the actual goal was even loftier: recognition as a Marja-e omoom (foremost Marja). Kayhan claimed that the goal was indeed achieved, using its usual mix of grand exaggerations, half-truths, and innuendo, and citing the "huge spontaneous" crowd that greeted Khamenei, a ridiculous claim as just detailed.

The hardliners tried their hardest to glorify Khamenei and his trip. Even before he arrived in Qom, a book was distributed about the visit and its benefits for the nation. The crowd that had been brought to Qom by the security forces chanted, "Resaleh, Resaleh," asking that Khamenei publish his religious guidance in Persian, thus paving the way for him to be a Marja inside Iran. They also chanted, "Imam Khamenei, the honorable Marja."

One loyal, discredited cleric, Sheikh Ali Akbari, claimed that Khamenei had already been recognized as a mojtahed when he was only 20. And, it was claimed that Khamenei's maternal lineage connects him to Imam Sadegh, the sixth Shia Imam who lived over 1,200 years ago. Yazdi issued a statement welcoming Khamenei, as did Moghtadaei.

The hardliners knew, however, that none of these efforts could achieve their goal of marjaeiyat for Khamenei. They knew that it could be obtained only through recognition by the recognized and true Marjas, which explains why they wanted to force them to meet with Khamenei.

As for meeting with the grand ayatollahs and other senior clerics, all those who agreed to meet Khamenei had to do so publicly, so that the encounter could be shown to the nation. Those who resisted meeting with him were threatened with having the funds used to pay their seminary students frozen. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, considered the most senior grand ayatollah in Qom and father-in-law of the judiciary chief, Sadegh Larijani, wanted to leave the city during Khamenei's stay as he always does whenever the Supreme Leader visits, but was prevented from doing so by security forces. Still, he refused to meet with Khamenei. As expected, those clerics allied with the Green Movement, such as Grand Ayatollahs Sanei and Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, or who tacitly support it, such as Grand Ayatollah Mousavi Ardabili, also avoided meeting with him. Others who refused to meet with Khamenei included Ayatollahs Seyyed Mohammad Sadegh Rouhani, Mohammad Sadeghi Tehrani, and Mohammad Ali Gerami Qomi.

Some Marjas, such as Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Jafar Sobhani, owe their positions to the support that they receive from the hardliners and Khamenei's office, and therefore did meet with him. Grand Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani met with Khamenei reluctantly, as did Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, the first secretary-general of the Guardian Council in the early days of the Revolution. Two other senior ayatollahs, Naser Makarem Shirazi and Abdollah Javadi Amoli, the maternal uncle of the Larijani brothers, also met with Khamenei in his Qom office. The visits were formal and only pleasantries were exchanged, but whether they occurred under pressure or by free will, the disappointing fact remains that the grand ayatollahs met with the man who symbolizes Iran's religious dictatorship.

The other primary goal of the trip was to have senior clerics certify Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei's son and a power behind the scene, as a mojtahed. There is no evidence that the goal was achieved. Mesbah Yazdi will surely recognize him as such, but that is not what Khamenei is after. He wants his son -- widely speculated to be his successor -- to be recognized as a Mojtahed by such figures as Grand Ayatollahs Khorasani, Zanjani, and Golpayegani. That did not happen and most likely will not happen.

In a speech in Qom, Khamenei divided the clergy into two camps. He referred to his supporters as the "traditional school," while he sarcastically referred to his opponents as those who may be influenced by the West. This is a totally false notion, because the most important clerical support for the Green Movement comes from the traditional school. Men such as Grand Ayatollahs Zanjani, Ardabili, Seyyed Jalaloddin Taheri, and Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib belong to the traditional school. Even Grand Ayatollah Sanei, who has brought some new concepts to the interpretation of Islamic teachings, considers his work a continuation of that of his teacher, Khomeini, who also belonged to the traditional school. Khorasani, who refused to meet with Khamenei, and others named above also belong to the traditional school. In essence, Khamenei wanted to put himself at the forefront of the traditional school, another facet of his attempt to be recognized as a major Marja.

Khamenei also warned about "Eslam-e bedoon-e ruhaniyat" (Islam without the clergy), which he claimed that some have called for. He was clearly referring to Ahmadinejad and his inner circle, particularly his close aide and relative Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The duo have been preaching about the virtues of the "Iranian school of thought," as opposed to the "Islamic school of thought," which has angered many conservatives as well as the traditional clergy.

So, what was the result of the costly trip? Insofar as Khamenei sought greater legitimacy by demonstrating to the public that Qom's senior clerics were still willing to meet with him openly, he succeeded, at least in part. But the few meetings with clerics that have popular credibility were largely coerced. As Mehdi Karroubi said after the trip, "legitimacy is not gained by public shows."

Insofar as Khamenei sought recognition as a Marja-e omoom, he failed. Insofar he wished to be recognized as a Marja taghlid, again, he failed. It does not matter how grandly Kayhan, Resalat, Javan, Vatan Emrooz, and Yaa Lesaaraat-e Hossein, the daily hardline mouthpieces, and Raja News, Jahan News, and other reactionary websites refer to Khamenei. The great aspect of Shiism is that it is the people who decide whom they want to follow, whom they want to emulate, whom they consider a true and pious Marja. Finally, if Khamenei wanted to take revenge on his deceased teacher, Montazeri, by having a crowd greet him that was larger than the one that came to mourn at the grand ayatollah's funeral, he failed most miserably.

Archive photo: Woman holding button that says, "Both Leader and Source of Emulation."

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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