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.

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."

"I established Velayat-e-faqih myself, and now they call me anti-Veli-e-faqih," Montazeri said in a controversial Nov. 20 speech.

Ruling clerics have responded noisily at this unprecedented public attack. Khamenei declared that dissidents who questioned his authority "were enemy agents, even though they might not be conscious of it."

"All state officials are moving in the same direction," he said, and called upon them to "carry out their duty against" dissidents who practice such "treason against the people.... You should get to know who the real enemy is. World arrogance is the enemy, America is the enemy, the Zionists are the enemy."

Clerics in Qom try to play down the significance of the division, arguing that the principle of Velayat-e-faqih has been debated in religious circles for centuries. It is only the recent high-profile comments, they say, that have turned it into a sensitive political issue.

"The way Montazeri did it was insulting, like an attack, and this [militant] reaction is what it brought," says Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, in an interview. Such disputes should be resolved according to the law, he adds, and not on the streets where it harks back to the early days of the revolution. Such violence is rare these days.

Emerging conservatives

He notes, however: "The nature of the Islamic government is political, and the nature of the Velayat-e-faqih is also political."

The divisions push to the heart of Iran's Islamic regime, and indicate how much conservative forces have emerged since the death of Khomeini, who is still regarded as the "imam of the age."

Khomeini did not encourage clerics to take top political positions, nor did he believe in the "divine right" of clerical rule, as do many conservatives. Instead, he noted the "constitutional nature" of the regime.

But according to many Iranians, the point of no return has already been passed. "Before the revolution, clerics had a big following in Iran. People would make any sacrifice for them," says one Iranian professional.

"But now the pendulum has swung the other way. Clerics are the losers of the revolution, and many of them know that. They say they are losing their respect because they are involved in politics."

The result was the victory of Khatami last May. His promises to ease social restrictions, renew the rule of law, find jobs, and work for women's rights struck a deep chord that has been part of the growing protest of the clerics' hard-line rule.

Signs of dissent

The most open signs of dissent came last month. At the annual demonstration in front of the former US embassy on Nov. 4, for example - where militants chant "Death to America" and burn flags to mark the 1979 embassy takeover - students staged a parallel demonstration to protest a conservative speaker.

Liberal academics have also been shouted down by militants. The well-known head of a leftist student organization who called for curbs on the power of the supreme leader - and more recognition of the liberal policies of the democratically elected president - was severely beaten.

The militants are widely believed to be with the Ansar e-Hizbullah (Followers of the Party of God), a group that operates with the sanction of the government but is not controlled by it. "When they think they see a threat, they react automatically," notes one Iranian.

"We are seeing a very muscular campaign by the radical right to demonstrate that the Khatami election victory did not mean anything," says a Western diplomat. "The forces Khatami does not control - these are making examples."

During a recent speech calling for government guarantee of freedoms, Khatami nevertheless made clear this priorities: "First comes Iran, then Islam," he said.

Officially, the current tension is blamed on "hands from outside," though top clerics admit that "factions inside" may be active.

"The best way to undermine the position of Velayat-e-faqih is to have someone revolutionary ... do it," says Grand Ayatollah Shirazi, stroking his white beard.

But he dismisses the question of any real threat to clerical rule: "We think we've been through a lot more than this."

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