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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”