The Widening Rift Among Iran’s Clerics

Just a few years ago, it was rare to hear public declarations from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming vast authority as a theologian. But today it is unusual if a few weeks go by without a public pronouncement from him boasting of his Islamic credentials.

Recently, Khamenei issued a fatwa on his Web site, demanding that Shiites obey him as the ultimate spiritual leader on earth. In his words, Khamenei said he was the earthly “deputy” of both the Prophet Mohammad and the Hidden Imam, who is the 12th imam Shiites believe will return to earth one day to save the world.

There is a purpose behind Khamenei’s increasing public attempts to assert his self-proclaimed religious authority. As the supreme leader feels more and more threatened by Iran’s clerical establishment — which is increasingly challenging his ability to lead an Islamic state, particularly in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election — he becomes more abrasive and outspoken in an attempt to assert his questionable religious credentials. His fatwa two weeks ago, for example, constitutes heresy in the view of some theologians who believe no one can claim to represent the Prophet on earth.

In fact, there is now a full-blown rift between Khamenei and many of the conservative and traditional clerics who once supported him, or at the very least, did not publicly oppose him. Many prominent clerics are at odds with Iran’s leadership — a development that casts a question mark over the legitimacy of the Islamic state.

This conflict between the state and clerics is different now than in the past because it has been exacerbated by clerical opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is Khamenei’s protégé. While in the past the conflict was primarily between well-known dissident clerics, such as the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, and hard-liners in the regime, today moderate and conservative clerics have joined the opposition. This deepening dissent illustrates the depth of Iran’s domestic crisis.

Because it is taboo in Shiite Islam to publicly criticize the supreme leader, often the grievances against Khamenei are directed at Ahmadinejad, who Khamenei has supported at a high cost.

Consider the evidence, which began nearly as soon as Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the winner of the June 12, 2009, disputed presidential election. Senior clerics in the holy Shiite city of Qum refused to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his controversial victory. No grand ayatollah except Hussein Nouri Hamedani, who is celebrated by the central government for his wholehearted support of the leader and the president, congratulated Ahmadinejad. This was unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. In every presidential election since 1980, including those of the impeached Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and the reformist Mohammad Khatami, senior clergy in Iran publicly congratulated the winner and wished him well.

About a month ago, well-organized government supporters attacked the homes of Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and the late Hossein Ali Montazeri — both noted reformist clerics. In a show of force, mobs destroyed Sanei’s office as they chanted “death to anyone opposed to velayat-e-faqih” — the “Guardianship of the Jurist,” which places a leader interpreting God’s word atop republican institutions.

Pro-government mobs have not spared the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. At an event in June commemorating the 21st anniversary of Khomeini’s death, supporters of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad interrupted Hassan Khomeini’s speech, called him a hypocrite, and forced him to leave the stage.

The fact that the government felt compelled to treat the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and two grand ayatollahs as enemies of the state shows how worried the regime is about its religious authority. It is likely that further humiliation will be directed at other dissident clerics.

The new conflict between Khamenei and conservative clerics is not about the legitimacy of the theory of velayat-e-faqih — these clerics believe in that concept. It is about how Khamenei has reached far beyond the powers he is entitled to as supreme leader.

In fact, a large segment of the clerical population does not believe in the theory of velayat-e-faqih and thinks the clergy should stay away from politics. One such cleric is the most notable figure in the Shiite world, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, who has many Iranian followers as well. Sistani, along with Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeni-Boroujerdi in Iran, for example, is an adamant supporter of the separation of mosque and state. Boroujerdi, who is currently serving a sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for his beliefs, thinks that Shiite clerics should not be involved in government.

Although the conflict between Khamenei and the clerics has become a major cause of Iran’s internal crisis, it is often overlooked or misunderstood in the West. The enormous power and influence of the Shiite clergy in Iran is often underestimated because Western governments are focused on Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Another reason Westerners tend to discount the clerics is due to a perception that Iranians are becoming more secular. This notion is an oversimplification. After 31 years of theocratic rule, there is an increasing tendency in Iran to separate mosque and state. But this does not mean that faith in God and Shiite Islam are evaporating. Religious institutions and symbols are still important to Iranian life.

Khamenei is now facing a unique set of challenges. Conservative clerics, some of whom stand at odds with Ahmadinejad, still enjoy a strong following in Iran. In addition, Khamenei knows his power is not what it was five years ago or on June 11, 2009. The clerical establishment now has the potential to directly challenge Khamenei, which the regime wants to avoid at any cost. Recent attacks against the houses of Montazeri and Sanei made even some senior clerics who are at odds with the reformist clergy angry. They wonder what stops the government from attacking their own homes.

Khamenei’s success is the result of his ability to forge alliances with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, some clerics, and traditional conservatives. Although his ties to hard-liners and the Revolutionary Guards may seem stronger today, he still needs the support of the clerical establishment.

Khamenei’s idea of the Islamic Republic is certainly less republican and not necessarily more Islamic. With republican institutions in Tehran weakened and his religious authority challenged in Qum, the future of the Islamic Republic and the fate of velayat-e-faqih remain uncertain.

Geneive Abdo, the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and Arash Aramesh, a research associate for the Iran program.