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Montazeri is challenging the core values of the regime, and as the traditional clergy faces off with the regime, the potential for violence is high
An extraordinary outbreak of factional fighting has dividednormally pro-regime circles in Qom and Tehran, reminiscent of theearly days of the Islamic Republic. As long-standing divisions withinthe clergy come out into the open and become more acute in the comingmonths, the potential for more widespread violence is high. Indeed,sources close to President Khatami in Tehran warned that a "battleroyal" had begun that threatens to shake the Islamic Republic to itsvery foundations.
The dispute, which made headlines in the state-controlled mediatoward the end of November, erupted when Grand Ayatollah Hussein AliMontazeri delivered a sermon to followers in Qom on Nov. 14,denouncing the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah AliKhamene'i, and challenged his credentials to rule Iran.
Ayatollah Montazeri was the hand-picked successor of the IslamicRepublic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but Khomeinidisowned him on March 28, 1989 only two months before his deathbecause of Montessori's increasingly open opposition to Khomeini'sauthoritarian style of clerical rule. Since then, Montazeri has beenconfined to Qom, although he has been allowed on occasion to addressstudents and followers, as he did in mid-November.
Montazeri's Nov. 14 speech was a direct attack on Khomeini'ssuccessor, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, whom the traditional clergy havenever accepted as the spiritual leader of Shiite Muslims. He saidKhamene'i's lavish life-style compared poorly to that of Imam Ali,the founder of the Shiite sect, "who ruled over a nation three timesas big as our Iran of today from a 3-room house" which doubled as hisoffice. Montazeri criticized the leaders of the Islamic Republic fordeforming the Constitution and Islamic beliefs, and for monopolizingthe mass media, which he argued "must belong to the people." He alsodenounced regime interference in the election process, saying"elections must be free."
But his most caustic remarks were reserved for Khamene'i himself,who was anointed by Ayatollah Khomeini to lead the revolution as itsSupreme Guide and "jurist," the ultimate religious and politicalauthority in the land. Khamene'i's religious credentials have neverbeen accepted by the traditional clergy, and his appointment in 1989led to a 10 year muted struggle by the traditional clergy in Qom andMashad to circumvent his religious authority. "In our Constitution,we have a Velayat-e faqih, but not in the sense that one manconcentrates all power in his hands," Montazeri said. "The vali weconsidered and envisaged in the Constitution has his duties andresponsibility clearly defined. His main responsibility is tosupervise, to make sure that society does not waver from the truepath of Islam. If he sees that the president is going against theprinciples of Islam, he must stop him." He went on to admonishKhamene'i directly for his lack of religious credentials. "I toldKhamene'i please do your best to keep the marja'yat [supremereligious authority] independent, as it has always been; keep thehowzeh [religious schools] independent, for if they becomestate institutions it is dangerous for the future of Islam andShiism. Don't let the sanctity and moral independence of the howzehget mixed up with affairs of state. What's this idea of sending abunch of unruly kids off to Qom to demonstrate against this or thatperson? Don't try to imitate the Imam [Khomeini] because youare not him. So stop dealing with religious matters and contentyourself to supervise."
Azari-Qomi's open letter: Montazeri appears to have been bolsteredto make this unusually bold speech by the publication in the exilepress and on Farsi-language radios reaching Iran of a 34-page openletter from Ayatollah Ahmad Azeri Qomi, an erstwhile Khamene'i-allyand a member of the Assembly of Experts that originally elected him.The letter strongly criticized Khamene'i and the Velayat-e faghih,and warned that unless dramatic changes were made in the way theregime was running the affairs of the nation, "the people willconsign us to the dustbin of history."
Among Azeri-Qomi's proposals was a suggestion that Khamene'ideputize Montazeri to handle religious affairs, leaving Khamene'i tooversee politics. He also blamed Khamene'i for having personallysupervised the creation of the Ansar-e Hezbollah gangs that haveterrorized liberal academics and clerics over the past two years, andaccused Khamene'i for having set the stage for widespread "moralcorruption" among regime officials and clergymen which has "witheredthe roots of decency."
He also criticized the regime for torturing the sons of GrandAyatollah Mohammad Shirazi. "Even if he rejects the Velayat-e faghih,why torture his children? Security organizations should learn fromthe shameful fate of the SAVAK," he wrote. He also appealed topresident Khatami to abolish the Special Court for the Clergy whichwas established by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly before his death inorder to purge the traditional clergy of those who failed to supportthe ruling political order and the institution of the Velayat-efaghih. It is this Court that has arrested and tortured manyfollowers of Grand Ayatollah Shirazi.
In response, on November 10, Azeri-Qomi was forcibly expelledfrom a Qom clerical institute, on orders from Khamene'i, sourcesinside Iran said, while the Ansar-e Hezbollah organized streetdemonstrations denouncing him in Qom and Isfahan.
Next, the regime attacked Montazeri himself. On Nov. 19, groups ofAnsar-e Hezbollah thugs, known to be organized by a close Khamene'iconfidant, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, stormed Montazeri's privatecompound in Qom, ransacking the premises and reportedly physicallyassaulting the 75-year old cleric. During their assault, theychanted: "Montazeri and Azari must be hanged," and: "this nest ofspies must be destroyed." The term "nest of spies" was coined duringthe 1979-1981 hostage crisis to describe the U.S. embassy inTehran.
The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency broadcast the attackand the chants, subsequently reassuring readers that Grand Ayatollahwas "safe," although his whereabouts remains unknown. Sources inTehran and Qom said that Montazeri and Azeri-Qomi were both herdedoff to undisclosed locations by armed agents of the Ministry ofInformation and Security during the Nov. 19 attack. While theirdisappearance has not been officially confirmed, neither cleric hasappeared in public since the Nov. 19 clashes. They are believed to bein the hands of the Special Court for the Clergy or the MOIS, whichwork hand-in-hand.
Khamene'i threatens trial: In a Nov. 26 speech to Basijis,broadcast live by state-run radio and television, Ayatollah Khamene'iwent even further, ordering the courts to start proceedings againstMontazeri. In discussing Montazeri's criticism of the regime, hewarned: "Those who have tried to break unity among the people bydisrupting public security and sowing discord ... have committedtreason against the people, the revolution and the country. Theyshould be punished according to the law." Such charges carry thedeath penalty in Iran.
But Ayatollah Montazeri still has followers in high places.Despite his apparent arrest, on December 1 he managed to circulate asamizdat statement in Tehran, signed by his own hand, criticizing the regime for their heavy-handed attack on his followers in Qom,according to the Tehran-based Iran Nation's Party, an illegal buttolerated opposition group headed by former Labor Minister, DarioushForouhar.
In recent days, the clashes have subsided as the regime has soughtto put on a public face of domestic tranquillity to welcome worldleaders to the Islamic summit conference in Tehran. But mostobservers in Tehran believe that once the Summit is over, fightingcould erupt anew. "Everyone is preparing for the battle," onesupporter of President Khatami told The Iran Brief. "People aretaking sides and the battle lines are being drawn."
The unknowns: Several unknown factors will come into play in thecoming weeks and months, that could dramatically alter the balance ofpower among the different factions in Iran.
First: Rafsanjani. Whose side will he take, if any? In a publicspeech on Nov. 28, two days after Khamene'i's threats, Rafsanjaniappeared to join the Supreme Leader. "It would be most unjust ifsomeone were to say that the country has not been run well under his(Khamene'i) honorable leadership," he told Friday prayer worshippersat Tehran University.
In an apparent conciliatory gesture, he noted that "All of us,those who have some criticism and those who do not, should join handsand unite in these sensitive times. We should not confuse thesociety...and not do anything that pleases our enemies." Observers inTehran said that this and other comments - in particular,Rafsanjani's back-handed defense of embattled Tehran mayor,Gholamreza Karbaschi - suggested that he was sending a quiet messageto reformers that if push came to shove, he would be on their side.
But then he went on: "It is time to put an end to such criticism,for Velayat is the spine of our regime and of Islam. It is not tosuppress freedom of expression, but because the interest of the statedictates so" [emphasis ours].
Given Rafsanjani's long history of ambiguity, it is unlikely hewill back either side until it is clear who the winner will be.Indeed, his long association with the regime is likely to make himextremely hesitant to support a reform movement that could easilycareen out of control, stirring up long-simmering resentments thatcould end up sweeping the regime from power
Second, Khatami. So far, the newly-elected president has tried tostay clear of the dispute, but both sides are trying to draw him intotheir web. In editorials that appeared shortly after the attack onMontazeri's compound, the regime-controlled dailies Jomhouri-e Eslamiand Resalat chastised the president for not supporting Khamene'i morevocally. "Your silence is not compatible with the line of the lateImam," Jomhouri-e Eslami warned. "You do not have any justificationfor your silence." Instead, the paper said, he should have condemnedMontazeri "because of his illegal activities."
The conservative daily Resalat, which had been run by AyatollahAzari-Qomi up until a few months ago, went even further, tellingKhatami that if he feels uncomfortable with the restrictions put onhis authority by the Supreme Leader, then he should "go to theleader, offer his resignation and explain his reasons to thepublic."
In his open letter, Grand Ayatollah Azari-Qomi held the newPresident accountable for the actions of the Intelligence Ministry,which constitutionally is under his control. "Every one knows thatconcerning the Information Ministry, the leader has imposed his willupon you. But don't forget that in the eyes of the people, you areaccountable for all the abuses and criminal activities carried out byagents of this ministry."
Azari-Qomi proposed a solution, which would clearly be explosive:calling for a referendum on the powers and the role of the SupremeLeader. "With their vote in your favor, our braved people havebrought the whole of the present leadership into question and I amproud of it. But dear Mr. President, be careful not to become thelast president of the Islamic Republic, for this is what may well beyour fate if you do not act now to stop at once the presentinjustices committed in the name of Islam."
As my friend in Texas says, those are fighting words.