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A Coronation in Qom

by MEA CYRUS in London

13 Oct 2010 16:08Comments
DWF151107047-vi.jpg[ analysis ] The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the eve of making a trip to the holy city of Qom. This is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's first trip there in quite a while, significantly since the controversial presidential election that has divided the country into warring camps -- a conflict that persists at least in a war of words, now that demonstration fever has abated with the regime's far-reaching crackdown on dissent.

This division is reflected not least among Iranian religious figures, including the most prominent Marjas (sources of Shia emulation). Some senior figures, such as Grand Ayatollahs Yusuf Sanei and the late Hossein Ali Montazeri, found themselves at the helm of the spiritual leadership of the Green Movement. Many others, such as Grand Ayatollahs Ali Mohammad Dastgheib and Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, took public positions against the government and publicly called the Supreme Leader's management abilities into question. One must not forget that Mehdi Karroubi is a cleric himself and a well-decorated one who held many senior positions under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Karroubi was one of two presidential candidates who created a major dilemma for the Supreme Leader: how to deal with them without risking a popular uprising when Iran is fighting a cold war with the West over many issues, one that seems to inch ever closer to turning hot.

Khamenei is going to Qom for several important reasons, among them to show his authority and intimidate those clerics, both grand and junior, who dare to oppose him and his puppet president publicly or privately.

An analyst in Iran who spent many years in Qom told me the Supreme Leader is trying to announce his marjaeiyat -- the ability to issue instructions for handling modern issues based on traditional Islamic rulings. When the classic texts fail to offer a clear way to deal with a contemporary problem, the Marja guides his followers with a ruling. It is generally considered essential to establishing his status that a Marja publish his resaleh amaliye (book of guidance), something that Khamenei has not done so far. This is a significant sign of weakness in a country run by clerics in a manner similar to the dictatorship depicted in George Orwell's Animal Farm.

So acquiring the credentials of a Marja and intimidating opponents are Khamenei's primary goals. But how does he intend to go about achieving them? The state media have already been proclaiming this trip to Qom "historic." What are the techniques being used to make the event worthy of such a label?

The circumstances around the trip are, in fact, historically significant in several regards.

A few weeks before the trip, a new wave of crackdowns on dissident clerics began. The websites belonging to Dastgheib, Sanei, Bayat-Zanjani, and other senior clerics have been shut down by the government without public explanation. The regime used to offer explanations, however implausible, for why the Internet had gone down yet again -- mostly before big events when authorities feared it could play a big part in organizing people. On such occasions, it was not surprising to hear that once again a ship's anchor had managed to sever cables on the seabed. But in this case, there was no explanation. Bear in mind that ayatollahs like Dastgheib have religious followers who might use his official website to get in touch with his office and seek guidance -- fatwas -- concerning their day-to-day lives.

The closure of the ayatollahs' websites coincided with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip to the United Nations, where he reveled in extensive media coverage. His big line of argument was that in Iran all are free and everyone says what is on his or her mind. Some observers were quick to question his claim when the ayatollahs' websites went down and called Ahmadinejad a "liar."

The government also applies pressure more generally on ayatollahs and other clerics to toe the dictated line, especially when it comes to showing respect and submission to Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has pursued a policy of making religious schools in Qom and elsewhere dependent on the government. Clerics live on donations from their followers. The more elevated a clergy's ranking, the more money he receives, a portion of which he distributes to his students. A central objective of this longstanding tradition is to keep clerics independent from the government pocketbook. But as with other forms of government in Iranian history, this clerical establishment has also tried and mostly succeeded in using political influence and money to buy obedience. The government thus has a very effective means of keeping people, especially the traditionally religious strata of society, in line as clerics use their positions to legitimize the regime's policies, with Islam as the main tool of persuasion. It seems that growing opposition among reformists and conservatives to Ahmadinejad's policies has made Khamenei impatient, which in turn has prompted him to to go to Qom to rally clerics behind the Tehran establishment. Qom has rarely been so divided and shaken since the 1979 Revolution.

On the other side of the coin lie tougher forms of pressure to keep clerics in line with Khamenei. The Intelligence Ministry and Revolutionary Guards have departments dedicated to monitoring the clerics, in particular potentially dissident ones. When big events like Khamenei's trip to Qom are imminent, they get in touch with senior ayatollahs' offices to garner their support. Compared to ten years ago, prominent ayatollahs have more and more frequently expressed their disapproval of the regime and its policies. Some like Dastgheib have publicly declared the Assembly of Experts, the body constitutionally empowered to appoint and remove the Supreme Leader, unable to do its job -- that is, to hold Khamenei accountable. So far, Khamenei has treated these opposition figures with relative leniency, as he knows a violent crackdown against such ayatollahs would only spread opposition among the clerics. But that could change.

This trip is unprecedented in another important way: the cost, which is said to be more than a billion tomans, or $1 million. This is many times more than previous trips. In addition to heightened security, there is surely a lot of behind-the-scene spending to buy the support of individual clerics and their camps.

Current circumstances make this upcoming trip a crucial one. Some in Qom say the government is planning a grand ceremony to greet Khamenei at the gates of Qom, as if they are courtiers and he is their king. (On previous visits, he was welcomed inside the city.) Khamenei is showing more blatant signs of acting like a sultan, as Akbar Ganji called him on several occasions. In a recent fatwa, he defined what it means to abide by Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, as represented by the Supreme Leader), in which he said, "It is mandatory for everyone to obey instructions."

His intervention into the battle of wills over Azad University between the camps of Ahmadinejad and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- who founded the university as a private institution -- was the latest sign that Khamenei intends to exercise greater power. Rafsanjani, an ayatollah himself, had publicly said that Azad's new status as a religious charity, which he helped engineer, meant it was God's property and "nobody could change that status" and "if someone could change it then it meant he was more powerful than God." Well, Khamenei rejected Rafsanjani's assertion, rendering his clever move moot. Making this announcement right before his trip to Qom is a calculated step: a warning to other clerics and a move to isolate Rafsanjani and his followers, clerical and nonclerical alike. The balance of power in Iran may well have changed by the time Khamenei returns to Tehran from his "historic" trip.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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