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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.

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“The Shiite theocracy in its present form has failed,” said dissident Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar in a December interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. “I do not know when exactly, but I am convinced that the regime will collapse.”

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Ayatollah Kadivar lives in exile in the United States and is seeking to rally pro-reform clerics in Qom and Tehran, according to clerical sources. But many are frightened to come on board because of regime harassment and “Iranian intelligence’s strict control of phone communications within the clerical system,” says a source inside Iran.

Some acts of defiance

Some methods of defying the Islamic Republic include refusing to deliver the Islamic Republic-mandated, agenda-setting weekly sermon at Friday prayers, disputing the Supreme Leader’s choice of the day on which Ramadan ends, or the extreme measure of self-imposed exile to other Shiite clerical centers, such as Iraq’s Najaf or Pakistan’s Multan.

Sanei has avoided criticizing the regime since his home was attacked by Basij regime loyalists a day after Ayatollah Montazeri’s well-attended funeral two weeks ago. The residence of another reformist, Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, was also attacked. The attacks were interpreted as preemptive strikes against any ambitions to head the Green Movement.

“The religious far right wants to follow very traditionalist interpretations and not have the kind of council-based consultative government promoted by the pro-Khomeini leftists,” says Walter Posch, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “These are fora which allow people a modicum of participation in some issues through elections, and they’re the Islamic Republic’s way of embracing the secular element in society.”

The debate is playing out against a background of declining social influence for the clerics.

“Paradoxically, 10 years ago, everyone in Iran was scared of the clerics,” says Mr. Pedde. “Now they, in turn, are scared of the pasdaran [Revolutionary Guardsmen] and the MOIS (Intelligence Ministry)! Those combatant clerics who self-promoted after the revolution did nothing to replicate their activity, and now that they are dying off, they realize there’s no generation to follow them.”