Iranian Clerics Defy Regime, Criticize Elections

by Brien Jackson

Just when it seemed the Iranian protests may be running out of steam, some of the most influential clerics in all of Shia Islam have voiced their disapproval of the regime, and criticized the recent elections:

An important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.

A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult.

“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.”

There’s a lot of ways in which this is important to the situation. The most apparent is the timing; the government has just recently threatened anyone who continues to dispute the election, hoping to be much like a parent who just says “enough” to end some behavior they don’t like anymore. But even after that, this group of clerics have announced their opinion, more or less in open defiance of the regime. Secondly, there’s the problem this creates for whatever shred of legitimacy Khamieni hoped to maintain. Remember that the Supreme Leader is supposed to be the final arbitrer on matters of religion and state, and even if many of the Grand Ayatollahs don’t really believe in the system the Ayatollah Khomieni constructed, they’ve more or less abided by it since the revolution. That’s no longer the case here, and this pronouncement is a blow to the Khamienists, who had been using the specter of divine blessing to bolster the “official” results of the election.

On a more practical account, this creates some real tangiable problems for the regime. We’re not talking about your local priests or country preacher here, these are some of the most learned, most respected scholars in all of Shia Islam, a branch of faith that deeply venerates it’s Grand Ayatollahs. There’s really no good way for the regime to respond here. A self-styled theocracy can’t very well imprison, torture, execute, or even really sanction it’s highest ranking relgious leaders and scholars while still maintaining the facade of religious trappings, and this is a real problem for Khamieni, who must choose between leaving the clerics alone, likely to rouse more headaches for him, or cracking down on them, exposing to everyone that the religious nature of the regime constructed in the Revolution is long gone, and Khamieni is just a typical dictator. Ultimatlely, I think the regime only has those two choices; crack down on all of the dissenters, including the religious leaders, and rule the country as a police state (this assumes that the security services are comfortable adding well respected ayatollahs, or even grand ayatollahs, to their “enemies list,” which shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion), or tamp down their own response some, and just hope that the air leaves the protesters sometime soon. I have no idea what they’ll do, but either way, I suspect the regime’s days truly are numbered now. I just don’t see how you reset things now.