Clash of the Clerics

Iran’s ayatollahs fight over the future of the Islamic republic.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the Iranian election and its aftermath.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri

The demonstrations that broke out across Iran after the disputed election of June 12 seem to have eased off for the moment. The deep grievances that triggered their outbreak remain and have been compounded by anger at the ferocity of the state’s repression. At the root of the troubles is the very question of the future of the Islamic republic. For pious Muslims, there is no single vision of an Islamic state nor of how to achieve it. Equally, there is no agreement in Iran, even among the believers, as to how their republic should change. However, there does seem to be consensus that change is necessary, a fact highlighted by the enormous outpourings of public support for both reformist and conservative electoral candidates in the week before June 12 and by the exuberance of televised debates between presidential hopefuls.

The options for change in Iran should not be understood as a choice between democratic Western-style secularism on one hand and a military dictatorship in the name of Islam on the other. There are many options on the table, and most Iranians seek evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, to paraphrase journalist Roxana Saberi. The ultimate realization of this evolutionary change will, of course, depend on the ability of the proponents of differing visions to triumph over their opponents. It should be recognized that the ideological vision of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its implementation through the corrupt election of June 12 does not represent a continuation of the status quo but is itself a new trajectory. Ahmadinejad’s supporters have labeled his power grab as revolutionary, describing his election as Iran’s third revolution. (They consider the first to be that of 1979 and the hostage crisis the second.)

Ahmadinejad’s vision owes a large debt to his spiritual “guide,” Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who has been satirically caricatured as a crocodile in the Iranian press. The cleric is a hard-line conservative committed to a literal interpretation of the Quran and is a fierce opponent of Iran’s reform movement, so much so that he allegedly issued a fatwa sanctioning cheating in the recent elections. Mesbah-Yazdi and his Haghani Circle of followers reject even the limited elements of popular sovereignty, such as presidential elections, of today’s republic and demand more Islamic government. Despite the influence of the Haghani Circle on the president and within elements of the Revolutionary Guard, Mesbah-Yazdi lacks widespread accreditation from other mullahs. Senior clerics have not yet recognized him as a grand ayatollah, or marja.

An alternative vision comes from the Association of Combatant Clerics. This group, populated by many of the founding fathers of the Islamic republic and some “veterans” of the hostage crisis, now advocates a reformist vision. Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, is its most famous member. After Khatami withdrew from the election campaign in March, he endorsed Mir Hossein Mousavi. The association has expressed concern at the “massive engineering of votes” in the recent election and has openly called for pro-Mousavi rallies.

Other important voices have joined Ahmadinejad’s critics: Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and LotfollahSafi-Golpaygani have both cast doubt on the election results, as has Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Montazeri, once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s chosen successor, has been the republic’s bête noire since he openly questioned Iran’s human rights record in 1989 and then challenged Ali Khamenei’s credentials to replace Khomeini as supreme leader. All three grand ayatollahs and their supporters have questioned the election results, and in doing so they have challenged the authority of the supreme leader.

This is not the first time clerical opinion has been divided. In a series of lectures on Islamic government given in exile back in 1970, Khomeini outlined his vision of political Shiism. He extended a traditional concept of guardianship and from it built a political model that would place the most qualified theologian—conveniently, himself—as head of state. Many religious figures, including the hugely influential Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei in Iraq, opposed Khomeini’s vision, and some theologians continue to question Iran’s model of government, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, again from the relative safety of Iraq.

Clerical dissent has played a determinant role in many decisive events in Iran’s modern history, not least in the 1953 coup that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, previously a supporter of Mossadegh’s, drummed up popular opposition to the prime minister and sought the return of the shah. Iranian popular memory largely blames pernicious Western imperialism for these events, paralleling the official revolutionary historical narrative that demonizes Britain, the United States, and Israel. Both readings deny agency to Iranians as actors able to control their own destiny.

At present, much hope is vested in the abilities of plutocrat ex-President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to break the current deadlock. Rafsanjani is chair of the assembly of experts, a body of 86 clerics constitutionally empowered to dismiss the supreme leader. Rumors are circulating that Rafsanjani is in Qom—home to many of Iran’s clerical elite—and is negotiating on behalf of Mousavi. But Rafsanjani is a pragmatist and a self-server: His silence since the election may well reflect a desire to hedge his bets so as to protect his influence and power over whoever remains in control.

The divisions in clerical opinion reflect multiple alternate visions of Islam. Given the absence of a unified hierarchical clergy in Shiism, supporters are free to follow any senior theologian they choose. This ideological plurality is matched by a surprising amount of political openness in revolutionary Iran. Although direct questioning of the Khomeinist system or the supreme leader is generally not tolerated, political debate does exist. Many educated Iranians, including the religious, are also receptive to Western philosophical ideas: Reformist ex-President Khatami has a degree in Western philosophy; and translations of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies are widely available in Tehran’s many bookstores.

Ahmadinejad has attempted to constrict debate—back in 2005, he spoke of a cultural revolution. His coup d’état represents an attempt to dominate Iran’s political system, backed by the force of the Revolutionary Guard. His actions have already attracted widespread clerical opposition from senior religious figures. This opposition may not succeed in the short term, because these clerical opponents are not major political players, despite their senior religious authority, and also because Ahmadinejad seems willing to suppress opposition with violence. Nonetheless, the clerics’ vocal opposition has radically undermined the already tenuous legitimacy of a state claiming to be Islamic.