How Quarreling Ayatullahs Affect Iran's Crisis

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Mohammad Kheirkhah / UPI / Landov

Iranian clerics listen to Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as he speaks in downtown Tehran in 2006

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The Islamic state built by Khomeini only deepened the schisms in Qum, the shrine city outside Tehran that is the seat of Iran's highest-ranking clerics. Even some who had been persuaded by Khomeini's model of velayat-e faqih later turned against him, dismayed by how his notion of divine rule had devolved into a brutal earthly dictatorship. Foremost among these was Grand Ayatullah Montazeri, once Khomeini's designated successor, who broke with him in 1988 in protest against the mass execution of political prisoners. In the years that followed, Montazeri became a vocal critic of clerical interference in politics and has suggested that Iran's constitution should be amended to empower the elected presidency and strip the clerical Supreme Leader of absolute powers.

Forced to choose a new successor, Khomeini turned to his political protégé, Ali Khamenei, a hojjatoleslam — a cleric of junior rank to the ayatullahs'. Khamenei's clerical credentials fell well short of what the constitution mandated, requiring Khomeini to order that it be amended to allow a non-marja to rule in the event of his death. Khamenei was promoted overnight to the rank of ayatullah, but many high-ranking clerics in Qum refused to accept his new status.

As the Islamic republic entrenched itself, the divisions in Qum fell into place. A handful of the grand ayatullahs closely allied themselves with the state establishment, profiting from this association and in turn lending their support. In Iran they are considered the regime's marja, clerics who produce deeply conservative fatwas as the government requires them. A small clique of liberal grand ayatullahs opposed to the absolutist system of clerical rule also holds forth from Qum, issuing more progressive fatwas on controversial issues of jurisprudence. Numbering 19 in total, the grand ayatullahs form an approximate supreme court of clerical opinion. But because many — regardless of their attitudes about key issues of the day — are devoted to the principle of quietism, they offer no swing votes during moments of acute political crisis.

This tradition has kept Qum's hottest debates confined behind seminary walls. But the historical aversion to public criticism of the government has been tested under Ahmadinejad's tenure as President. During his first term in office, Ahmadinejad sought to identify his government with the hidden 12th Imam of the Shi'a tradition (referred to as the Mahdi). He declared the Mahdi the real ruler of Iran, invoked him in speeches and devoted resources to the shrine of Jamkaran, where messianically minded Iranians believe the Mahdi will emerge from occultation. This stoking of folk piety with messianic themes runs counter to classical Shi'a tradition, and Qum frowned on the President's tactics.

Over the past four years, whispers of Qum's displeasure with Ahmadinejad have grown steadily more audible. It is often murmured that even his staunchest backers, like the ultra-conservative Ayatullah Mesbah Yazdi, are privately disappointed with him. Senior ayatullahs complain that the President's evocations of the Mahdi and attempts to direct lay piety are undermining and disrespectful. These reservations don't appear to have moved Iran's Supreme Leader, however, who sealed his allegiance to the President by approving the disputed June 12 election results. But sooner or later it will be clerics — in the 86-member Assembly of Experts — who will choose a successor to Khamenei. Some rumors suggest that even before then, the assembly might use its authority over Khamenei to rein him in. The very clerical system that put Khamenei in charge could yet move to change Iran's direction.

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