Ecstasy in Iran, Agony for Its Clerics
Celebration by soccer fans last week broke rules of radical Islam and played into national debate.
Breathless Iranians had clung to their radios and television sets, frustrated that their national soccer team was getting trounced by Australia. But in the last moments, Iran turned the tables - and won a place in the next World Cup competition.Skip to next paragraph
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When the final goal was scored on Saturday, thundering cheers swept across every city and village in Iran. Young and old alike poured onto the streets to wave Iranian flags, block traffic, and climb atop cars.
The soccer jubilation brought a brief but unstoppable disregard of tough Islamic restrictions on public behavior - restrictions that are often flouted in private. Men and women openly danced in the streets, and some women removed their mandatory head scarves and let their hair down.
"If I was a conservative cleric, I'd be quaking in my shoes, because the security forces lost control of [the capital] Tehran for five hours," says a senior Western diplomat.
Even Iran's top Islamic rulers had shared in the victory with profuse praise.
But the spontaneous eruption may also have shocked those clerics as much as the unexpected soccer win. For it comes as unprecedented questions are being raised about the nature of Velayat-e-faqih, or "God's deputy on earth" - a post whose sacred primacy has been a pillar of Iran's revolutionary Islamic regime.
It is a debate that has begun to expose a complex power struggle between liberals and conservatives among Iran's clerical hierarchy. The outcome is likely to directly shape Iran's future.
Even in Qom - the center of Islamic learning south of Tehran, and among the most conservative cities in Iran - security forces were nervous as rowdy celebrants banged buckets and pots in place of drums to make "music."
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, nothing but the most traditional music has been allowed in Iran. Also since then, Iranians say there has never been such a display of people power on the streets.
"It was a revolution," says one Iranian man, mindful of the special meaning of the word here.
The raucous street scenes have coincided, however, with the dispute over the role of Velayat-e-faqih, which began to emerge last month.
It underscores a growing rift between hard-line conservatives - led by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual guide who is meant to represent the will of God - and moderates such as the recently elected President Mohamed Khatami.
Mr. Khatami, who has himself kept clear of the fracas, won the May vote with 70 percent of the ballot in a landslide that shocked conservatives and displayed the depth of division within Iran.
But left-leaning students, former government ministers and - most outrageously, in the view of the regime - one of Iran's most senior clerics, have called for curbs of the "supreme leader's" power.
The heart of the dispute
The words of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri drew the most violent reaction. The Veli-e-faqih's duty, he said, was to "supervise" only and "should not interfere in all affairs."
Khamenei, considered young at 58, was not seen as qualified to be supreme leader and can't issue religious laws.
Ayatollah Montazeri's criticism is particularly cutting, because by rank the cleric should have been supreme leader himself, diplomats and analysts say, to follow in the footsteps of the charismatic leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Desperate to boost his standing, Khamenei presented himself two years ago in Qom, but was refused the title of mojtahed, the highest spiritual rank. Diplomats note a joke in Tehran that Khamenei "paints" his gray beard white to fit in with the older ayatollahs.
Still, before he died in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a letter that cast doubt on Montazeri's own abilities saying that was "naive" and "dangerous" and should keep out of politics. But this time right-wing militants took him seriously - drawing a line that they hope no other critics will cross.
Last month, they attacked his house and ransacked the religious school where Montazeri is director. Police used tear gas to end the violence, though the ayatollah is still kept under tight security control at home. Grafitti on nearby walls reads: "Death to the anti-Veli-e-faqih."