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.
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.
“This revolution is supported by the people, it is a popular one," said the supreme leader. "If people hadn’t been present on the scene, if there had been a great gap between the people and the [ruling system, it] would not have been able to stand up to the enemy.”
Top among them are Ahmadinejad’s two main election challengers, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former two-time president Mohammad Khatami – all of whom have refused to accept the results.
They led what has since been called a Green Movement of popular opposition to the election results, though street protests have disappeared under the weight of the regime’s repressive tactics.
The “enemy,” Khamenei said on Tuesday – including “mercenaries and lackeys inside the country” – had since the 1960s targeted faith in God, and later loyalty to the Islamic regime through “promiscuity” and “fake mysticism” and “promoting different ideas.”
“They make rumors to drive a wedge between the people and the [ruling system], and to dishearten the people they try to sow the seeds of hatred and sow the seeds of suspicion among the people,” Khamenei said, according to a simultaneous English translation on state-run PressTV. “Whatever great achievement is done within the country, they just use it as a tool and launch a propaganda campaign against it. If there are weaknesses, they magnify them and do not show the strong points.”
For young people, especially, Khamenei said, they wanted to “darken the bright future ahead.” All those enemies of the Islamic Republic – despite “great investments” in the effort – had failed to “separate the people from the [regime],” even during the election last year.
Khamenei brushes aside residual concerns about election
Scores and possibly hundreds were killed in the crackdown by security forces and pro-regime militants. The Islamic Republic faced one of its more severe political crises in nearly three decades.
Speaking in Qom, Khamenei publicly brushed off any residual concerns. The high election turnout of near 85 percent, he said – which many Iranian voters at the time attributed to opposition efforts to unseat Mr. Ahmadinejad at the ballot box – was a strategic show of support.
“In fact, it was a 40-million-strong referendum in favor of the Islamic establishment, and in favor of the elections; that was the reason the enemy got enraged and they wanted to provoke sedition to deal a blow to that,” Khamenei said.
“People stood up to that sedition movement,” he added. “Last year’s sedition actually vaccinated the country against microbes, which can be political or social microbes….and increased [people’s] insight.”
Some clerics skeptical of 'infallible' leader
Khamenei’s speech sought to convince clerics who might still harbor doubt about how Iran’s system of an infallible and supreme religious leader, known as velayat-e faqih, is supposed to work.
Senior clergy opposed to Khamenei’s actions are the exception to the rule, says Khalaji.
“We can say that the religious institutes in Iran, the Shiite clerical establishment, is the wealthiest, the richest and the strongest in his own history. So they love this regime. At the same time, they hate this regime,” adds Khalaji.
“Why? Because Khamenei and the rulers of the Islamic Republic are becoming less and less popular [and] the social capital of clerics is the trust of the people, so they don’t want to be associated…in a way that the unpopularity of the regime damages people’s trust.”