TEHRAN, IRAN — Well before the first bomb dropped on Baghdad, Western analysts worried that liberation from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-based tyranny could push Iraq's Shiite majority into the arms of Iranian theocrats.
In the chaos that followed, such concern has seemed justified. Protesters in Shiite districts of Baghdad brandish posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's theocracy. In Iraq's holy city of Najaf, thousands flock to hear the speeches of Moqtada al-Sadr, a virulently anti-American advocate of clerical rule.
But an extraordinary outburst this week from Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson shows that the renaissance of Iraq's Shiites is a double-edged weapon that potentially is every bit as dangerous for Iranian rulers' grasp on power as it is for Washington.
Speaking to journalists in Najaf Tuesday, Seyyed Hussein Khomeini said that "Iranians insist on freedom, but they are not sure where it will come from. If it comes from inside, they will welcome it, but if it was necessary for it to come from abroad, especially from the United States, people will accept it."
While his name carries great weight for Iranians, Mr. Khomeini has little standing in the Shiite hierarchy. But his comments echo the discontent many Iranians feel about heavy-handed clerical rule.
Faced with US warnings not to meddle in Iraq's affairs, Iran has limited itself to barbed declarations that no one has the right to interfere in another country's affairs. "Tehran has no intention of trying to impose its political model on Iraq," says Amir Mohebbian, a columnist for the ultra-conservative daily Resalat. "All clerics, whether political or apolitical, share our goals and objectives."
But other Iranian observers say there is plenty of evidence that many in Iran would like Iraq to adopt clerical rule. The outspoken support of senior ayatollahs in the Shiite's sacred city of Qom, Iran, they say, has gone a long way toward legitimizing Najaf-based Mr. Sadr.
The rationale behind such behavior is clear, argues Seyyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, expert on Islamic law at Tehran University. "The revival of politically independent seminaries in Najaf will have a spillover effect on Iran. It could create a breathing space for those wishing to conform to the age-old precepts of Shiite tradition - the pious, apolitical links between senior ayatollahs and their followers."
Mesmerized by the push for change of Iran's reformist government, the West has tended to underestimate clerical opposition to the Iranian regime. One London-based clerical opposition group estimates that of approximately 5,000 ayatollahs in Iran, only 80 wholeheartedly support it.
While Ruhollah Khomeini was alive, doubts about his doctrine of clerical rule were tempered by his clerical credentials. The same is not true of his successor Ali Khamenei, only a middle-ranking cleric when he was appointed supreme leader in 1989. "Senior clerics treat his theological pronouncements with disdain," says Nadeem Kazmi, of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, a charity with close links to the apolitical Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf.
But what Ayatollah Khamenei lacks in credentials, he has made up for in surveillance, such as increased attempts to bring Qom's independent seminaries under state control. Nobody knows how many dissenting clerics have been executed by special clerical courts, although some sources put the figure at 60 since 1989.
"If Qom remains under the same kind of oppressive atmosphere, everyone will come to Najaf," Seyyed Hussein Khomeini said on Tuesday.
In a recent book on Iran's ruling elite, German Iranian scholar Wilfried Buchta goes further. "A Shia grand ayatollah from outside the Iranian system of power..., could issue fatwas [legal judgments] on religious-social matters that run counter to Khamenei's political line," he writes. "If this should happen, it could bring the whole system to the verge of breakdown."
Following a series of high-level clerical defections in recent years, some Iranian analysts see signs that dissatisfaction in Iran has spread to traditionally pro-regime clerics. But most Iranians doubt the clerics will transform passive opposition into active revolt. "If we're going to depend on them, we have a long wait on our hands," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, law professor at the Supreme National Defense University in Tehran. The political editor of reformist daily Etemad, Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi, agrees. "Even if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stood up in Najaf and criticized the Iranian regime, which he won't, nobody would listen to him."
But this is north Tehran, where students brandish copies of Nietzsche and whisper "God is dead" behind closed doors. While their more secular reform movement seems deadlocked, more traditionally minded Iranians may be willing to listen to clerics in Iraq who advocate separation of mosque and state.