Khomeini's Disciples in Iran: An Irreconcilable Rift?

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Khamenei / Reuters

Supporters of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei hold pictures of him during one of his speeches in Tehran

In a legend that many Iranians hold as truth, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini on his deathbed joined the hands of his chief disciples, Ali Khamenei — who would become Supreme Leader — and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani — the cleric who is now Khamenei's most powerful rival — and warned that if the two should ever be divided, the Islamic Republic would fall. Since the controversial presidential election in June, the growing rift between the two men has been playing out not only on the streets but also, just as important, behind closed doors in a game of chess that their adherents follow but the moves of which they cannot really see. And a day before the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution is to be celebrated, even as the regime was said to be rounding up would-be demonstrators to preempt disruptions of the official rites, a story has emerged to illustrate the supposed enmity between Khomeini's two disciples — one that, if not quite beyond rumor, is at least consistent with what many Iranians see as the arc of their country's apocalyptic melodrama.

The story, which appeared on an opposition website, alleged that Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader have had a climactic parting of ways, a final end to the pretense of keeping their deathbed promise to Imam Khomeini. The incident reportedly involves the wife of Alireza Beheshti, a close aide of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who was declared the loser in June to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Beheshti has the status of a living martyr for the opposition and is enduring his second period of detention since the election (he has survived a heart attack in prison). He is also the son of one of the primary architects of the Islamic revolution. According to the website, Beheshti's wife informed Rafsanjani from a safe hiding place that security forces had attempted to arrest her too. The story then has an enraged Rafsanjani confronting the Supreme Leader, who proclaimed Ahmadinejad to be President, demanding that he bring an end to "shameful actions."

"It has come to a point where the grandchildren of the first Head of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic, the innocent martyr Ayatullah Beheshti, must be without their parents during the 10 Days of Dawn [a reference to the celebration of the revolution's anniversary] and must live underground in fear of the security forces," said Rafsanjani, according to the story, presumably before turning on his heels and storming out of the Supreme Leader's presence with a swish of his cleric's robes.

The rumored incident aside, Beheshti and his family do play a part in more confirmable developments in Iran's drama. Last week, the pro-government press ignored a visit to Beheshti's home by Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini visited Beheshti's family after making an early departure from a ceremony commemorating his grandfather, attended by both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Khomeini left before the President began his speech. On the day after the event, newspapers aligned with the conservatives printed front-page photographs showing the Supreme Leader kneeling beside Khomeini's tomb alone, while newspapers associated with the reformists pictured Khamenei standing alongside an expressionless Hassan Khomeini. Meanwhile, opposition websites, unconcerned by Iran's press censors, published pictures of Khomeini's grandson embracing Beheshti's two young daughters.

It is, after all, a battle over the late Ayatullah Khomeini's legacy. His dynastic heir has clearly taken the side of the opposition. Indeed, Hassan Khomeini aroused the ire of pro-government members of parliament after complaining that the state media, the IRIB, had broadcast speeches with selective editing to create a misleading impression of his grandfather's beliefs. The MPs, in a joint statement, retorted, "Imam Khomeini does not belong to a specific 'house.' "

Now, on the eve of the anniversary, the Supreme Leader has given a green light to pro-government forces, like the Basij paramilitaries, to engage in the toughest possible action against protesters who may try to disrupt or hijack Thursday's official rallies. "Those who stand against the greatness of the Iranian nation are not of the people," Khamenei said on Monday in words reminiscent of his first call for a crackdown on protests at Friday prayers the week after the June election. "They have nothing to do with the masses."

Meanwhile, in his latest statements, the opposition leader Mousavi drew a parallel between his enemies and the powers that opposed the Ayatullah Khomeini, saying that 30 years after the Islamic revolution overthrew the autocratic Shah, the "roots of despotism" remained. "In the first years of the revolution, people were convinced that the revolution had completely destroyed all the structures through which despotism and dictatorships could be reborn," Mousavi said, "and I was one of the people who believed this. But today, I do not believe this anymore." The contending forces may clash again on Thursday. Khomeini no longer has the power to make his disciples join hands.