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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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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.