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Mullahs on My Mind

Iran's clerics strike a monumental blow to Ali Khamenei's position as Supreme Leader.

8:25 AM, Jul 6, 2009 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The New York Times's Saturday story about Qom's Association of Religious Scholars' call for new elections is worth further commentary. Stanford's always-insightful Abbas Milani is probably guilty of understatement when he remarked that Qom's declaration is "the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic." This is likely a monumental blow to Ali Khamenei's position as Supreme Leader. It's no secret that Qom, the most important center of Islamic learning in Iran, has never been friendly territory for Khamenei. Politically skilled, as a religious scholar Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor is even less accomplished than his brother-in-arms-turned-deadly-foe, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the revolution's most ambidextrous political cleric. The pride of Qom's senior clerics, who have given their lives to the serious study of Islamic law, has never stopped bristling at the religious pretensions of Khamenei, who cannot stop trying to promote himself as the most important politico-religious authority in the Shi'ite Muslim world.

Khamenei just cannot escape from the religious roots of his political office, the vilayat-e faqih. He is, to put it politely, a standing joke as a faqih, a religious scholar, in Qom, in Mashhad, where Khamenei controls Iran's richest religious foundation and uses that money energetically to promote himself, and in Najaf, Iraq's Shi'ite clerical headquarters where the Iranian-born and enormously influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani resides. One suspects that even highly accomplished legal scholars who are philosophically allied to Khamenei and his office--for example, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's so-called spiritual advisor--have a hard time getting excited about Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. This constant clerical tension, which degrades the legitimacy of Khamenei's right to rule among the most important constituency of the Islamic Republic, has now gone hyper because of the crisis of the June 12th presidential elections.

Although Qom has become enormously wealthy since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and its cultural and political influence extends throughout the country, the reverse is also true. The big, bustling, increasingly secularized megalopolis of Tehran, which is a quick drive north on a super highway, has spread its influence into Qom in ways nearly unthinkable under the Shah, when the physical, technical, and social divide between conservative Qom and imperial, Occident-adoring Tehran was far less permeable. Always attentive to the mood of their flock, Iran's clerics today are plugged in by cell phone and the Internet, as well as their incomparable traditional grapevine, to what's happening throughout the country. And more than ever before, the clerics have become urbanized. Ordinary Iranians may not know what's going on because of the regime's control of the media. But the clerics do.

Qom's clerics know all too well how unpopular theocracy has become in the country. This popular distaste--and that isn't too strong a word--with clerical rule amplifies many clerics' long-standing anxiety about the philosophical rectitude of the whole enterprise that Khomeini set up. Undreamed of wealth and influence has at times quieted these anxieties, but they are always there, just below the surface. They have now exploded into open dissent that guts the religious attacks of Khamenei's most powerful allies--the Revolutionary Guard Corps and their baton-wielding thuggish appendage, the Basij--against Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition. To use an Iraqi parallel: what the clerics of Qom just did to Khamenei is similar to what Ayatollah Sistani did to the Bush administration's original idea of caucus balloting in Iraq (if we recall, the Bush administration came up with this plan since it feared both the demands and the results of a free election). Qom has shown itself to be the worthy inheritors of the more progressive clergy of the 1905-11 Iranian revolution, when ideas about representative government began to seep into traditional clerical views about the need for independent religious scholars to supervise the ethics of government. Qom has clearly said that the June 12th elections were fraudulent and therefore null and void; most of the city's religious scholars have now implied, more openly than ever before, that Khamenei is an illegitimate ruler, who has betrayed the faith as well as the people. This is the stuff that in-house, counter-revolutions are made of.

Now, we will get to see where the Guard Corps is. The most "Sunni" of Iran's revolutionary organizations, many of its members dislike the clergy as an institution, seeing no need for an intermediary between them and God. However, many are undoubtedly faithful to the clerical establishment, which is now deeply divided. If Khamenei tries to crush Qom in the way that Khomeini crushed Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari in Tabriz in 1979/80, he'll probably push Qom into open rebellion. If he tries using the Guards Corps as a vehicle of oppression against the clerical establishment, he would surely risk his office. The unthinkable--being dethroned by the Assembly of [clerical] Experts, the institution that constitutionally has the authority to appoint and remove supreme leaders--would become immediately thinkable. Rafsanjani, who appears to have spent considerable time working on the members of the assembly, as well as on the clerical establishment in Qom, could spring a trap on Khamenei. And if Khamenei were to try to crush Qom, or to ignore and financially starve his foes there, he could run the serious risk of making Grand Ayatollah Sistani an active antagonist. Sistani is not a bold man. He survived in Najaf under Saddam because he kept his head down. He knows how nasty Khamenei can be with foes inside Iraq (he's watched them die). But if Khamenei tries to play hardball, there is a decent chance he will push Sistani, too, into open rebellion. (Sistani's office in Qom is massive; his office in Mashhad, Khamenei's power-base, has reportedly been growing rapidly.) If Najaf and Qom form an axis, which no doubt has already been discussed among the representatives of senior ayatollahs, Khamenei is looking at an unwinnable situation.

In the West, what's particularly distressing is that the Obama White House still seems to have little idea of the magnitude and nature of what is transpiring inside Iran. Tied to a fruitless policy of engagement (there's nothing wrong with "engaging" Khamenei so long as you use force as a medium of dialogue, i.e., you do unto them as they have consistently done unto you), President Obama appears to be blind to the most amazing time in the Middle East since the Islamic revolution. The future of the region is in play. We do--even after apologizing for the 1953 coup--have a few equities involved and can helpfully "meddle."

As Iran's unfolding battle between the children of the revolution is likely to last awhile, President Obama will get a chance to change course. Administrations often endeavor for three years on failed foreign policies before they can admit, at least internally, that there is a severe disconnect between their objectives and reality. Ali Khamenei has demolished President Obama's Iran policy in only five months. As a "student of history," the president may yet grow to appreciate the favor.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.