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In Qom, Iran's supreme leader Khamenei aims to cement leadership over clerics

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a high-profile visit to Qom today to demonstrate his leadership over a religious establishment divided by last year's election.

By Staff writer / October 19, 2010

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, on Oct. 19.


Istanbul, Turkey

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei began a high-profile visit today to Qom, Iran’s holy city and the heart of Shiite learning. The trip, reported to last a week or more, is a bid to demonstrate that he remains in firm control of a religious establishment that has been shaken and divided by last year's controversial election and the violent protests that ensued.

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State-run media highlighted the visit as “historic,” and for days in advance showed images of clerics painting welcoming messages on cars and motorcycles, and readying stacks of posters.

Ayatollah Khamenei basked in the adulation of crowds given the day off from work and school, in welcoming scenes far removed from those of a year ago, when protesters across Iran chanted “Death to Khamenei.”

“He wants to show off his legitimacy, especially [because] since the election his legitimacy and popularity were greatly damaged and for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic we had a huge demonstration in Qom … unprecedented, in which people shouted slogans against Khamenei,” says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who once trained at a seminary in Qom.

Iran's clerics divided

Iran’s senior clerics were divided by the June 12, 2009, presidential vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was anointed president for a second term amid credible charges of fraud. That result prompted hundreds of thousands – if not millions, according to some officials – of Iranians to take to the streets in protest.

The wide social and political divisions across the country were reflected among the clergy, too. While Khamenei sided with Mr. Ahmadinejad – calling his official victory a “divine assessment” – other clerics more senior than Khamenei in theological rank opposed the result, with one stating that “no one in their right mind” could accept it.

Opponents largely silenced

Tuesday’s visit to Qom aimed to reaffirm Khamenei’s credentials and dominance, now that the few remaining ayatollahs that publicly oppose him have been largely silenced – their homes and offices under surveillance, and websites cut off.

Much of the rest of Iran’s clerical establishment – the majority, says Mr. Khalaji, whose father is an ayatollah in Qom that has been hassled by security services – have kept silent, aware that it is the government that backs them with big budgets in return for political support.

“The fact that those clerics are welcoming him [in Qom], accepting him, receiving him, that’s a big thing for [Khamenei]. It shows that, ‘My religious position, my leadership is approved,’” says Khalaji, who is writing a biography about Khamenei. “Some pictures, some video shots – that would be enough for him, in order to show to the religious strata of society that, ‘Don’t think that whatever happened last year damaged my religious credentials.' ”

Khamenei: Enemy driving a wedge between clerics, public

In his speech in Qom, Khamenei stressed that two pillars of the Islamic Republic remained both its religious and its popular nature – aspects which have grown in tension since the 1979 Islamic revolution, most notably since the vote last year.