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Iran move to defrock dissident ayatollah opens rifts in theocracy

Iran said Saturday that the edicts of Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei were no longer religiously binding. The mandate has sparked serious disputes among clerical groups.

By Iason AthanasiadisCorrespondent / January 6, 2010

Istanbul, Turkey

The decision to defrock a dissident ayatollah – widely considered to wear the mantle of spiritual leader of the opposition – has pried open conflicts within the Islamic Republic’s religious core.

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The Qom Theological Lecturers Association, a regime-aligned grouping of clerics, mandated Saturday that Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei’s edicts are no longer religiously binding. The ruling was furiously disputed by the rival Association of the Lecturers and Scholars of Qom Theological Seminary and the Association of Combatant Clerics.

“It’ll be tough work [defrocking Sanei],” says Nicola Pedde, director of the Rome-based Institute for Global Studies and a frequent visitor to Iran. “It’ll provoke a massive movement from the clerical side and, possibly, totally and completely religiously delegitimize the regime.”

The crucial background struggle waged by the government and opposition supporters over religious legitimacy has taken backstage to the high-profile coverage of street-level political and social tensions. But the religious dimension is crucial in an Islamic Republic, where it is customary for members of the majority Shiite Muslim population to select an ayatollah as a religious and social object of emulation and donate to him a fifth of their income.

Maintaining legitimacy by controlling clerical networks

The Islamic Republic has safeguarded its religious legitimacy in the past 30 years by extending its authority over disparate clerical networks. It has done this through lavishly funding deferential clerics, while arresting or intimidating challengers.

“With the exception of Ayatollah Nuri Hamedani, who is strongly in favor of the regime, all the objects of emulation are unhappy,” said an Iranian political analyst, speaking on the phone from the seminary city of Qom. “With the exception of [Ayatollahs] Sanei and Mousavi-Ardebili, who issue anti-regime proclamations, the conservative clerics remain silent, even though they oppose the regime.”