Washington, DC - Last month, Iran's holy city of Qom was shaken by a wave of factional violence such as Iranians have not seen for some time. Groups of pro-government Muslim militants, widely believed to be acting on the orders of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, ransacked the offices of a senior cleric who had advocated deep reforms in the country's political, economic, and social system. By the end of the day, many of his followers had been beaten, and the cleric - 75-year old Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri - was whisked away by the security police to an unknown detention center, where he apparently still remains.
Until now, the regime has reserved the steel glove for "liberal" university lecturers and lower-level clerics who have found fault with the ideological underpinnings of the revolutionary system established by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. It has waged a relentless campaign against Marxist guerrillas, against Kurdish separatists, and against republican and monarchy-minded exiles . But this is the first time in more than a decade that the regime has violently attacked one of its own. For Mr. Montazeri is not just any cleric: until March 1989, he had been the hand-picked successor of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mr. Montazeri's demise as Khomeini's successor provides the key to understanding the conflict now raging in Iran, and says much about the nature of the so-called "Islamic" Republic established by Iran's revolutionary clergy. Westerners will find the language and the issues obscure, yet they should make no mistake about the statkes, which are nothing less than the future of Iran, its oil reserves, and the peace and security of the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea region.
Under the 1979 Constitution, Ayatollah Khomeini became absolute ruler of Iran. He could single-handedly overturn laws drafted by the elected Parliament, overrule decisions by the elected President, and take the nation to war - as he did against Iraq in September 1980. He could also reverse course without challenge, as he did in 1988 by suing Iraq for peace. Khomeini argued that the ultimate source of his authority came from God, and that obedience to him was every Iranian Muslim's holy duty.
His designated successor, Hossein Ali Montazeri, believed that no man, no matter how learned, could pretend to such awesome power - and he said so. His reward was the loss of his job as "Supreme Guide-designate" three months before Khomeini's death. Mr. Montazeri was confined to Qom, where he has been allowed to teach and occasionally address students and followers.
Khomeini then appointed a lesser cleric, Hojjat-ol Islam Ali Khamene'i, as his successor. While the senior Shiite clergy initially went along with this political appointment, they vigorously resisted attempts by Mr. Khamene'i to assume Khomeini's spiritual mantle. Many senior Iranian Shiite clerics began to question the wisdom of maintaining the system of Velayat-e faghih, the notion that one cleric, invested by God, could lead Iran in all its religious and political matters. This questioning has become so widespread that one of Iran's most senior clerics, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Rouhani, pointedly refused to meet Mr. Khamene'i last year when the Supreme Leader sought to win his endorsement.
A few months later, Grand Ayatollah Rouhani died under mysterious circumstances at his home in Qom . His family alleged that he had been poisoned. Two of his brothers - Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani, who has been under house arrest in Qom since 1985, and Ayatollah Mehdi Rouhani, who lives in exile in Paris - are now spearheading the fight within Iran's mainstream clergy to withdraw support for the regime.
Into this imbroglio, enter the Iranian people. In May, Iranian voters rejected the regime's hand-picked candidate to become president, Parliament speaker Nateq-Nouri. Instead, they voted 70%-30% for a moderate cleric, Hojjat-ol Islam Mohammad Khatami, who promised to respect women's rights and to lead Iran into the 21st century as a modern nation. Because of the massive vote in favor of Mr. Khatami, the regime was apparently concerned that a popular revolt would occur if they rejected the results.
While Mr. Khatami does not have the power - or the inclination - to change things overnight, the Iranian people spoke with remarkable clarity. Their vote went for cultural, social, and political moderation, and an end to the policies that have alienated Iran from the West. Mr. Khatami's victory as president was also a defeat for the regime's system of Velayat-e faghih.
In a speech in Qom on November 14, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri brought this all home, chastising the current "Supreme Leader," Mr. Khamene'i, for his taste for luxury and absolute authority, and reminding listeners of the need to separate church from state. He concluded with a stinging personal rebuke of Mr. Khamene'i: "Don't try to imitate the Imam [Khomeini] because you are not him," he said. "So stop dealing with religious matters and content yourself to supervise" political affairs.
To stem the tide of revolt within the clergy, the regime apparently dispatched its brown-shirted thugs, known in Iran as the "friends of the Party of God," against Ayatollah Montazeri, ransacking his residence and assaulting his followers on November 19. Then on Nov. 26, in a speech broadcast live by the state-run radio and television, Mr. Khamene'i ordered the Judiciary to start proceedings against Mr. Montazeri and to prosecute those "who have committed treason," a capital offense in Iran.
More such attacks are to come. But Ayatollah Montazeri still has followers in high places. Despite his apparent arrest, on December 1 he managed to circulate a samizdat statement in Tehran, criticizing the regime
The fighting that erupted last month against would-be reformers in Iran is only the beginning. But it was essentially a rear-guard attempt to turn back the clock against the Iranian people's vote last May. The direction this revolution will take is likely to be decided inside a normally closed religious establishment. This could be the beginning of a newly violent and aggressive Islamic Republic - if Supreme Leader Khamene'i wins. Alternately, it could herald the first hesitant rays of democracy in Iran.