The Battle for Qom’s Hearts and Minds

The center of gravity in Iran's political crisis is not in Tehran, but miles away, in a dusty center of religious learning.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images Dissident cleric: Ayatollah Montazeri in 2005.

During the months leading up to Iran’s presidential election and even after this past week of demonstrations, violence and political instability, there is one powerful constituency that has largely remained silent — Iran’s clerics in the holy Shiite city of Qom. But a few days ago, a powerful voice emerged from this ancient city — one that should have overshadowed the cries of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and riot police. That voice came from Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a founder of the Islamic republic who for many years has been Iran’s most influential dissident and an idol of youth and Iranians of all generations.

Montazeri, now in his 80s, issued a statement on his Web site that denounced the election as a fraud — an opinion that is likely shared among the thousands of clerics and seminarians who behind the scenes are no doubt weighing in on the battle for power inside Iran.

Our youth, hoping to see their rightful will fulfilled, came on the scene and waited patiently, Montazeri wrote. This was the greatest occasion for the government’s officials to bond with their people. However, unfortunately, they used it in the worst way possible. Declaring results that no one in their right mind can believe, and despite all the evidence of crafted results… And now they are attempting a purge, arresting intellectuals, political opponents and scientists.

There is a secret few outsiders know about Iran: The theocratic regime is afraid of the mainstream establishment of clerics in Qom. Why? Because clerics like Montazeri believe that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his protg, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, use a distorted interpretation of Shiite theology for their own political ends. As a result, they believe Iran has become an un-Islamic, militarized state where Islamic militias repress the Iranian population in the name of God. There is another fact unknown to those unfamiliar with Iran: The youth are actually fond of some of the clerics, and shout their names at their demonstrations.

The cartoon image of Iran’s mullahs is one of pre-modern, opium-addicted men who hide their large bellies beneath their flowing robes. But during the years I was posted in Tehran for the Guardian newspaper, I made frequent trips to Qom — so many, in fact, that the authorities banned me from traveling there after about one year. During those visits, the clerics told me that they believe Khamenei, who was a mid-ranking cleric before he became supreme leader in 1989, has amassed enormous political power precisely to compensate for his lack of theological credentials.

Khamenei’s has, in turn, granted enormous power to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the basij, the Islamic militias under their command. These are the forces now beating and shooting protestors on streets across the country.

Given the tools at Khamenei’s disposal, it should be no surprise that during this past week there have been few clerics either permitted or bold enough to express their views on the present crisis. Nevertheless, some are likely working behind the scenes against Ahmadinejad. Clerics such as Montazeri oppose the president not only for his repressive policies used against the Iranian people, but because he believes in ideas that theologians view as heretical — such as the return of the hidden imam who will come to Earth after a world war in which Islam is victorious.

This is not to say that the majority of clerics oppose Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. It is likely that the clerics are split, and even those who do not support Khamenei and Ahmadinejad might be unwilling to say so in public for a variety of reasons, including the fact that clerics rely on the state to some degree to fund their seminaries. Before the election, commentators called out for the clerics to publicly announce who they were endorsing for president. The hard-line Combatant Clergy Association — one of the two traditionalist associations of clerics in Qom — has many members who support Ahmadinejad. But other members did not want to take an official position before the elections out of fear of causing an internal rift. Only a few hard-line members of the association, such as its chairman, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, openly announced their support for Ahmandinejad.

No matter the outcome of the popular rebellion in Iran, the clerics working behind the scenes will have their say. They do not want to allow Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to decide Iran’s fate without them, nor do they want to risk being further discredited in the eyes of the people simply because they are part of the theocratic system that is becoming more and more repressive.

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