Jonathan Lyons: Khamenei's Past Power Play against the Clerics May Be Haunting Him





[Jonathan Lyons, Reuters Tehran bureau chief from 1998-2001, is the co-author of Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st-Century Iran. His latest book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, was published earlier this year by Bloomsbury Press.]

As the latest political drama unfolds in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may yet come to rue the day, in 1999, that he sought to muzzle one of the nation’s most important constituencies – the handful of most senior clerics who provide spiritual and personal guidance to millions of pious Shi’ites. The attention of the world is rivetted by events in the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, and other urban centers, but much of the real battle is taking place, unseen and unremarked, in the seminaries, popular shrines, teaching circles, and extended clerical households that make up the holy Shi’ite city of Qom. Here, some of the Shi’ite world’s most senior theologians, the marja-e taqlid, or sources of religious-legal authority for the laity, zealously guard their independence from a state that claims to act in the name of Islam. These grand ayatollahs and their legions of aides collect religious taxes from individual believers worldwide, and then use these funds to run seminaries, carry out good works, oversee global media operations, propagate their views, and provide their networks of followers with religious rulings to guide their daily lives.

Despite its formal name – the Islamic Republic of Iran – the political system now overseen by Ali Khamenei has few supporters among the recognized grand ayatollahs and their large circle of clerical fellow-travellers. In traditional Shi’ite thought, legitimate political authority may be exercised only by the line of the Holy Imams, the last of whom went into hiding to escape the agents of the rival Sunni caliphs and has not been heard from since 941. The return of the Hidden Imam, which will usher in an era of perfect peace and justice on earth, is eagerly awaited by all believers. Until then, all political power is seen as corrupt and corrupting by its very nature, and as such it must be avoided whenever possible.

Historically, this has served the Shi’ite clergy well, forging a close bond with the people, as intercessors with the state authorities at times of acute crisis, a privileged and influential position only rarely achieved by their Sunni counterparts. Yet, it stands in direct opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical religious notion of direct clerical rule and has been the source of underlying tensions within the clerical class for three decades. The dirty little secret of the Islamic Republic is the fact that it is seen as illegitimate by huge swathes of the traditional Shi’ite clergy.

Khomeini’s personal charisma and his own religious standing, as well as the revolutionary exigencies of the early days of the Islamic Republic, drove much of this religious opposition into the background. So did harsh repression of the few senior religious figures who dared to stand up to him, including his one-time political heir, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. What’s more, the powerful quietist tradition in Shi’ism reinforced the tendency of many theoligians to withdraw into their seminaries and to carry on their religious work outside the structures of a state system that they reject. All that began to change with the designation in 1989 of Ali Khamenei, a mid-ranking cleric with no real religious standing or intellectual credentials, to succeed Khomeni as supreme leader.

Khamenei’s rise also saw the rise of the “political mullahs” for whom political power easily trumps Shi’ite religious thought and practice. To strengthen his hand, Khamenei was summarily “promoted” to the senior rank of ayatollah, competely disregarding the traditional system of clerial advancement based on learning and popular acclaim. Second, the constitutional role of supreme leader was redefined: he was no longer required to be recognized as a marja-e taqlid, an honor the plodding Khamenei could never hope to achieve. Most important of all, other constitutional changes further centralized executive power in the hands of the leader, weakened the role of the elected president, and eliminated altogether the position of prime minister. Thus, the stage was set for the clerical dictatorship that Khamenei has successfully forged for himself and his allies, a position now put into play by the latest events.

Still, the supreme leader has not always had his own way, and the traditional clergy remain a potentially powerful adversary should they sense that the time has come to throw their support behind a popular movement in its struggles against an illegitimate state. Ten years ago, Khamenei shocked the clerical establishment when he sought to interdict the enormous financial flows that sustain the independence of the grand ayatollahs and demanded the diversion of the religious taxes and other contributions to a centralized state fund under his direct control. The proposal was shot down, as was an earlier, ham-handed attempt to see Khamenei included in this elite circle as a recognized marja-e taqlid.

But the bad blood between the ruling political mullahs and the main body of clergy in Qom remains, and it is this influential constituency, not the green-clad demonstrators in the streets, that holds the long-term danger for Iran’s ruling elite. In a recent statement on his Web site, the highly-respected Montazeri, a founding father of the Islamic Republic turned leading dissident, denounced the election results as a sham [for more, see this link].

Among Montazeri’s long-standing critiques of the regime is its use of religious authority to enforce its political will and secure its own political power. This is often seen in the regime’s use of the draconian charge of “fighting against God,” a religious offense punishable in theory by death, brought against its political opponents.

In this way, the revolutionary grand ayatollah and the more traditional clerics share the same essential view: political power has corrupted the clergy and destroyed its vital link to the people. In Montazeri’s eyes and those of his numerous allies, Khamenei’s inability to obtain the level of learning, popular acclaim, and scholarly recognition required of a marja-e taqlid has removed any trace of the popular legitimacy that lies at the heart of a true Islamic democracy. So, too, does his direct intervention in the political affairs of the nation. Instead, Montazeri and others have argued, the supreme leader should be elected from among the grand ayatollas by his fellow senior clerics, and he should provide moral and spiritual leadership to the nation rather than exercise executive power. This would restore to the Shi’ite clergy the respected role it has played for centuries.

Iran’s large clerical class, of course, cannot be neatly slotted into any one, single category, and clearly some of them are supporting the status quo, in the forms of Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Others are likely taking a wait-and-see attitude, while still others remain deeply committed to their quietist roots. Likewise, fissures among the political mullahs themselves have also appeared, most notably around former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose differences with Khamenei have broken out into the open.

With the supreme leader’s address to Friday prayers in Tehran affirming the election result and warning protesters to stay off the streets, it is hard to see how the protests can end in anything but a violent crackdown. Any move in that direction will certainly increase the pressure on President Obama, now chiefly from the neo-cons but likely to spread, to “do something” to support the protesters. In the current circumstances, however, any White House response is virtually certain to backfire and will only entangle the United States in a struggle it cannot see or fully understand. The West must not allow itself to be so destracted by the political street theatre in Iran that it falls back on its default position – that the end of clerical rule is at hand.

Still, Khamenei and his circle cannot hope emerge from the traumas of the present upheaval without taking into account the mood and opinion of that large segment of the Shi’ite clergy that is increasingly dismayed at the turn of events over the last two decades. To do so would only postpone the inevitable day of reckoning as Iran struggles to resolve the riddle posed by Khomenei with his creation of the Islamic Republic: is it a republic accountable to the people, or an Islamic state beholden to one particular interpretation of the faith?



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