Ayatollahs desert Iran’s besieged regime

Nir Boms and Shayan Arya

The Australian, January 14, 2010

AYATOLLAH Ruhollah Khomeini established his Islamic regime on the premise of velayet-e faqih, the undisputed moral and religious authority of the supreme leader as a successor to the prophet Mohammed and the infallible Shia imams.

This premise was set to justify and guarantee the survival of the system he created. Undisputed authority, he thought, with a back-up from Allah, cannot be challenged. But as events in Iran unfold, it becomes clear this is no longer the case. Not only is the leader challenged but also his self-ascribed monopoly on God.

Khomeini’s successor Ali Khamenei never enjoyed the religious and moral authority of his predecessor. Khamenei, a mid-level cleric (hojatoleslam) who had never completed a resaleye amalie (equivalent to a PhD dissertation for Shia religious students), ascended to the rank of grand ayatollah within three months. He began his career by putting his rival, grand ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, under house arrest.

For his part, Montazeri, once designated as the successor to Khomeini, indeed became Khamenei’s most vocal opponent. His once lonely voice of dissent became stronger as more and more ayatollahs, including very senior ones, found it increasingly difficult to keep silent.

The rift between the clerical establishment and the regime has significantly widened during the past six months. Slowly but surely, even some of the most conservative ayatollahs began to distance themselves from both.

Last month, grand ayatollah Javadi Amoli, who performs Friday prayers in Qom, announced his resignation. In his departure statement, he expressed his frustration with the lack of listening on the part of the Supreme Leader: “When the Friday imam articulates the problems that people face and those problems are resolved, it is evidence that he has expressed them well. But if the problems are not resolved, that means he was not successful.”

In another recent sermon, Ayatollah Reza Ostadi, a Friday prayer leader in the holy city of Qom, condemned the “extremism in support of the Supreme Leader”, or the heavy-handed tactics used by the regime to impose Khamenei’s authority. In response, one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides launched a verbal attack on the senior cleric. However, no less than 19 top members of Qom seminaries issued an open letter in support of their colleague.

Last June, shortly after the first peaceful demonstrations were met with violence, a video clip of Grand Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Dastghaib, the most senior religious figure in Fars, appeared on YouTube. In it, he openly called the supreme leader an apostate who should be removed from God’s mercy. This brazen speech brought the closure of his mosque as well as several attacks on his office and home. He was also barred from giving public speeches. But his message still resonates.

In another YouTube clip, Ayatollah Shirazi, who belongs to one of the most prominent clerical families in Shia Islam, called Khamenei “worse than Yazid”, referring to a historical figure who is the embodiment of Satan for Shi’ites. Yazid’s army killed Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed and the most revered Shia imam on the day of Ashura. Although the timing of the clip is not clear, its content is unequivocally lucid: Khamenei, no longer represents Islam but, rather, he is perceived as an enemy of the faith. Shirazi ends his remarks by praying for Khamenei’s severe punishment on the day of judgment.

Shirazi’s remarks appeared more relevant at the December 27 mass demonstrations that coincided with the Ashura, the annual commemoration of Hussein’s death. At least nine people were killed that day, an untold number were injured and more than 1100 people arrested in Tehran alone. Such brutality during the holy day placed the supreme leader closer to the side of Yazid in the eyes of many.

Co-opting God remains at the core of this debate. Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, one of Khamenei’s most corrupt representatives, called the leaders of the opposition enemies of God who should be sentenced to death. Mehdi Karubi, a mid-ranking cleric and an opposition leader, characterized the attack on the demonstrators on the day of Ashura as an “unforgivable sin”.

Yazid or not, it is becoming increasingly evident that the moral authority of the Supreme Leader is fading. With it, the very foundation on which the Islamic Republic was built appears shakier than ever. The Iranian people, along with the religious leadership, are distancing themselves from a regime that represents neither the people below nor God above.

Nir Boms is vice-president of the Centre for Freedom in the Middle East and a co-founder of Cyber Dissident.org. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran.

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