Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Shark Attack

How Iran’s political crisis might only strengthen the Islamic Republic -- and why Rafsanjani could be the election’s real winner.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

After weeks of silence, Iran's mainstream clerics, perhaps the most powerful constituency inside Iran, have spoken out. In a bold statement Saturday, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom called President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection illegitimate. The Guardian Council that oversaw the election, the association concluded, no longer had the "right to judge in this case as some of its members have lost their impartial image in the eyes of the public."

As stunning as it might seem to hear clerics openly condemn an election that the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has sanctified, inside Iran it is less unexpected. Most clerics in the holy Shiite city of Qom have never supported the extremist religious and political ideas of Khamenei and the hard-liners within his inner circle. The clerics in this association -- and many other high-ranking ayatollahs -- had already individually sided with the opposition now led by Mir Hossein Mousavi. They have done so not to bolster the so-called "green revolution" of the streets, but to save the Islamic republic from extinction.

Despite what you hear about the supposed dawn of a new democratic era in Iran, what is likely to develop in the near future is a different kind of theocracy. Whatever "cracks" in the system now on public display will not weaken the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's possible the clerics might even strengthen it over the long term by resolving a key contradiction: how Islamic principles should be applied in a state that aspires to also function as a republic.

After weeks of silence, Iran’s mainstream clerics, perhaps the most powerful constituency inside Iran, have spoken out. In a bold statement Saturday, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom called President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection illegitimate. The Guardian Council that oversaw the election, the association concluded, no longer had the "right to judge in this case as some of its members have lost their impartial image in the eyes of the public."

As stunning as it might seem to hear clerics openly condemn an election that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has sanctified, inside Iran it is less unexpected. Most clerics in the holy Shiite city of Qom have never supported the extremist religious and political ideas of Khamenei and the hard-liners within his inner circle. The clerics in this association — and many other high-ranking ayatollahs — had already individually sided with the opposition now led by Mir Hossein Mousavi. They have done so not to bolster the so-called "green revolution" of the streets, but to save the Islamic republic from extinction.

Despite what you hear about the supposed dawn of a new democratic era in Iran, what is likely to develop in the near future is a different kind of theocracy. Whatever "cracks" in the system now on public display will not weaken the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s possible the clerics might even strengthen it over the long term by resolving a key contradiction: how Islamic principles should be applied in a state that aspires to also function as a republic.

Clearly, the Iran of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and other like-minded figures, such as Ayatollahs Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati, has failed. Now, the clerical establishment in Qom, aligned with Mousavi and millions of Iranians in the opposition movement, plans to redefine what it means to be an Islamic republic. As Mousavi, himself a non-cleric, said in a statement released July 1, "Islam is a liberating religion — liberating from superstitions and fabrications." The opposition is fighting to extinguish the Islam of constraints, repression, and violence created by Khamenei and his allies, not to overthrow the established order altogether.

Many of the influential clerics at odds with Khamenei were devoted followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution. One such ayatollah is Seyed Jalaleddin Taheri, who has also declared the election invalid. Referring to Khamenei’s endorsement of Ahmadinejad, Taheri asked pointedly in early July: "Did the imam [Khomeini] believe that those who are supposed to be impartial should formally and officially support a particular candidate?" He went on: "Why does the protection of law only apply to you and your friends, and why do religion, law, and the imam only become dear when you can benefit from them. … Where does your totalitarianism end?" In other words, is Iran a republic accountable to the people, or an Islamic state beholden to one particular interpretation of the faith?

As this religious war continues to unfold, there will no doubt be casualties and beneficiaries. At this moment, it appears Mousavi might be the sacrificial lamb; many high-ranking hard-liners are calling for his trial and imprisonment. The editor of the Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, who is a mouthpiece for Khamenei, argued recently that Mousavi and former President Mohammad Khatami should be tried for "terrible crimes." He might get his way. With hundreds of reformist foot soldiers already in prison, it appears the hard-liners are still deciding the fate of the reform movement’s key leaders.

The likely beneficiary of this religious struggle is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. If the statement from the association in Qom is a clue, then the former president, who has been lobbying behind the scenes in Qom for weeks, has used his time well. A skilled political operative once known as "the Shark," he has been doing what he does best: leaving no fingerprints. He appears one day to be retreating back into the fold of the hard-line regime and on another siding with the opposition. At this point, it is unclear where he stands, which is precisely the place he prefers to be, as long as other heavyweights, such as the members of the Qom clerical association, do his bidding for him.

When the dust settles, Iran could turn out to be a gentler Islamic republic. With leading reformers in jail and the street tamed, the voices for radical change are falling silent. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, could be dwarfed by Rafsanjani and the mainstream clerical establishment, which may not be particularly fond of Rafsanjani, but thinks he is a better alternative for preserving the Islamic system. Meanwhile, to ensure that system remains intact, Rafsanjani might well turn a blind eye to the trial and imprisonment of the reformers he so fiercely defended and claimed as his allies over the last several months. It wouldn’t be the first time he has sold them out.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive

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