Election Underscores Splits Among Iranian Clerics

07 July 2009

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd during a religious ceremony, warning Western governments against
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd during a religious ceremony, warning Western governments against "meddling" in Iran's post-election riots, 06 Jul 2009
The disputed Iranian presidential election has highlighted the divide in Iran's clerical establishment. Conservative religious scholars welcomed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while reformist religious figures have criticized the results. Some religious leaders are uncomfortable with Mr. Ahmadinejad for his political actions and his messianic religious views.

Qom is the center of Islamic learning in Iran. So when a group of clerics in Qom released a statement condemning the results of the Iranian presidential election and questioning the government's legitimacy, it prompted world headlines. Some news outlets proclaimed the clerics are on a collision course with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The statement came from a group called the "Assembly of Scholars and Teachers of Qom Seminary," which is a pro-reformist gathering of clerics. The Guardian Council blocked its leader from running for parliament last year.

Analysts say it is a counterweight to a rival group with a similar-sounding name, the "Society of Teachers of Qom Seminary," a conservative and powerful association with a membership of seven ayatollahs and three grand ayatollahs.

So the condemnatory statement was not really a surprise, and analysts say any talk of a head-on clash between the clerics and the Supreme Leader is premature at best. Nevertheless, they add, there are political splits in the clerical establishment, some of which have come into the open because of the disputed election.

Jane's Information Group senior Middle East analyst Alex Vatanka says any public statements issued by clerics challenging the election's legitimacy should be considered significant.

"The fact that you have members of the Shia clergy talk about the Council of Guardians not being qualified to do the job [of certifying the election] that the constitution has set it to do is the big issue," Vatanka said. "These guys are not fringe elements. They are not sitting somewhere outside the country making up directives. They are sitting at the heart of Shia teachings within Iran, in a theocracy."

Vatanka says President Ahmadinejad, who is not a cleric, has alienated clerics on policy and religion.

"By and large what Ahmadinejad has done is create a whole host of enemies in the clerical establishment for various reasons," Vatanka said. "He has gone after some of them, accused them of economic corruption and all the rest of it. You heard that as part of the campaign. But you also have clerical members who are against Ahmadinejad's presidency and running of the state from a more religious point of view."

Mr. Ahmadinejad won his first term in 2005 by running on a populist platform, railing about corruption. Analysts say many Iranians view the clerical class as privileged, pampered, and corrupt. His particular target then and now is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a cleric.

In 2006, the president ordered women be allowed into stadiums for sports events. Senior clerics denounced that as promoting indecency, and he was forced to back down. Some clerics were also reportedly taken aback by his dispatch of a letter to Pope Benedict, who is a controversial figure in some quarters of the Muslim world.

Syracuse University Middle East Studies Director Mehrzad Boroujerdi says Mr. Ahmadinejad enjoys the favor of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but never built bridges to the clerical establishment.

"Ahmadinejad does not have a good relationship with the clerical establishment to begin with, the ones in Qom or Mashaad or other important places," Boroujerdi said. "Yes, he is a good buddy with Khamenei. But in terms of having forged ties with the heavyweight clerics in Qom, he has not done that. And, indeed, some of the things he has said in the past have alienated them."

Mr. Ahmadinejad has also raised eyebrows for invoking a messianic belief into policy matters. He has repeatedly made reference to his belief in the Hidden Imam, whom Shiites believe disappeared 1,000 years ago and will return after an apocalypse to usher in an era of peace and harmony. It is very similar to the belief held by some End Times Christians of the second coming of Jesus after an apocalyptic battle between good and evil.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has invoked the Mahdi, as the Imam is called, several times, even in his 2005 speech at the United Nations. In a 2008 speech, he said that the Mahdi is in charge of the world and that we see his hand directing all the affairs of the country.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi says that makes some orthodox Islamic scholars uneasy.

"Some of them, for example, are not happy with the messianic tone of his arguments because if you put yourself in the position, there is all this talk of the return of the hidden imam," Boroujerdi said. "If you are a grand ayatollah, the return of the hidden imam means that your days are numbered, right? You are going to be without a job. So the fact that Ahmadinejad keeps repeating that kind of argument does not necessarily endear him to the clerics, even though in public they have to remain mute."

The president's spiritual mentor is a leading Iranian proponent of Mahdiism, the highly conservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. That Ayatollah is also chairman of the conservative Society of Teachers of Qom Seminary, which has thrown its support behind Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election controversy. Some analysts believe Yazdi is in line to be Iran's next Supreme Leader if the country does not embark on a new course.