Iran's Sparring Ayatollahs

by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1997

Washington, DC - Last month, Iran's holy city of Qom was shaken by awave of factional violence such as Iranians have not seen for some time.Groups of pro-government Muslim militants, widely believed to be actingon the orders of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, AyatollahAli Khamene'i, ransacked the offices of a senior cleric who had advocateddeep reforms in the country's political, economic, and social system. Bythe end of the day, many of his followers had been beaten, and the cleric- 75-year old Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri - was whisked awayby the security police to an unknown detention center, where he apparentlystill remains.

Until now, the regime has reserved the steel glove for "liberal"university lecturers and lower-level clerics who have found fault withthe ideological underpinnings of the revolutionary system established byAyatollah Khomeini in 1979. It has waged a relentless campaign againstMarxist guerrillas, against Kurdish separatists, and against republicanand monarchy-minded exiles . But this is the first time in more than adecade that the regime has violently attacked one of its own. For Mr. Montazeriis not just any cleric: until March 1989, he had been the hand-picked successorof Ayatollah Khomeini.

Absolute ruler

Mr. Montazeri's demise as Khomeini's successor provides the key to understandingthe conflict now raging in Iran, and says much about the nature of theso-called "Islamic" Republic established by Iran's revolutionaryclergy. Westerners will find the language and the issues obscure, yet theyshould make no mistake about the statkes, which are nothing less than thefuture of Iran, its oil reserves, and the peace and security of the PersianGulf and Caspian Sea region.

Under the 1979 Constitution, Ayatollah Khomeini became absolute rulerof Iran. He could single-handedly overturn laws drafted by the electedParliament, overrule decisions by the elected President, and take the nationto war - as he did against Iraq in September 1980. He could also reversecourse without challenge, as he did in 1988 by suing Iraq for peace. Khomeiniargued that the ultimate source of his authority came from God, and thatobedience 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 saidso. 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 andfollowers.

Khomeini then appointed a lesser cleric, Hojjat-ol Islam Ali Khamene'i,as his successor. While the senior Shiite clergy initially went along withthis political appointment, they vigorously resisted attempts by Mr. Khamene'ito assume Khomeini's spiritual mantle. Many senior Iranian Shiite clericsbegan 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 itsreligious and political matters. This questioning has become so widespreadthat one of Iran's most senior clerics, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Rouhani,pointedly refused to meet Mr. Khamene'i last year when the Supreme Leadersought to win his endorsement.

A few months later, Grand Ayatollah Rouhani died under mysterious circumstancesat his home in Qom . His family alleged that he had been poisoned. Twoof his brothers - Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani, who has been under housearrest in Qom since 1985, and Ayatollah Mehdi Rouhani, who lives in exilein Paris - are now spearheading the fight within Iran's mainstream clergyto withdraw support for the regime.

Into this imbroglio, enter the Iranian people. In May, Iranian votersrejected the regime's hand-picked candidate to become president, Parliamentspeaker Nateq-Nouri. Instead, they voted 70%-30% for a moderate cleric,Hojjat-ol Islam Mohammad Khatami, who promised to respect women's rightsand to lead Iran into the 21st century as a modern nation. Because of themassive vote in favor of Mr. Khatami, the regime was apparently concernedthat a popular revolt would occur if they rejected the results.

While Mr. Khatami does not have the power - or the inclination - tochange things overnight, the Iranian people spoke with remarkable clarity.Their vote went for cultural, social, and political moderation, and anend to the policies that have alienated Iran from the West. Mr. Khatami'svictory as president was also a defeat for the regime's system of Velayat-efaghih.

In a speech in Qom on November 14, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri broughtthis all home, chastising the current "Supreme Leader," Mr. Khamene'i,for his taste for luxury and absolute authority, and reminding listenersof the need to separate church from state. He concluded with a stingingpersonal rebuke of Mr. Khamene'i: "Don't try to imitate the Imam [Khomeini]because you are not him," he said. "So stop dealing with religiousmatters and content yourself to supervise" political affairs.

To stem the tide of revolt within the clergy, the regime apparentlydispatched its brown-shirted thugs, known in Iran as the "friendsof the Party of God," against Ayatollah Montazeri, ransacking hisresidence 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'iordered the Judiciary to start proceedings against Mr. Montazeri and toprosecute those "who have committed treason," a capital offensein Iran.

More attacks likely

More such attacks are to come. But Ayatollah Montazeri still has followersin high places. Despite his apparent arrest, on December 1 he managed tocirculate a samizdat statement in Tehran, criticizing the regime

The fighting that erupted last month against would-be reformers in Iranis only the beginning. But it was essentially a rear-guard attempt to turnback the clock against the Iranian people's vote last May. The directionthis revolution will take is likely to be decided inside a normally closedreligious establishment. This could be the beginning of a newly violentand aggressive Islamic Republic - if Supreme Leader Khamene'i wins. Alternately,it could herald the first hesitant rays of democracy in Iran.