The Supreme Leader’s Not-So-Grand Tour
Ayatollah Khamenei's latest bid to shore up his religious credentials was a miserable failure.
If you're skeptical of the recent coverage from Iranian government sources showing how enthusiastic crowds greeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on his recent trip to Qom, one of the theological centers of Shiite Islam, you should be.
Photos and film from IRNA, Iran's state news agency, depict him meeting thousands of cheering admirers, arms waving with fervor. Last week, IRNA published a blizzard of stories running down Khamenei's meetings with religious scholars and seminary students, all intended to send the message that the leader is not only firmly in charge of his country, but also revered as its highest religious authority.
If you’re skeptical of the recent coverage from Iranian government sources showing how enthusiastic crowds greeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on his recent trip to Qom, one of the theological centers of Shiite Islam, you should be.
Photos and film from IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, depict him meeting thousands of cheering admirers, arms waving with fervor. Last week, IRNA published a blizzard of stories running down Khamenei’s meetings with religious scholars and seminary students, all intended to send the message that the leader is not only firmly in charge of his country, but also revered as its highest religious authority.
But when one takes into consideration that many of those supporters were not spontaneously assembled masses, but rather basiji (members of the paid militia that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), the waving crowds are suddenly less impressive. True, Khamenei’s real mission was to secure the blessings of Qom’s top ayatollahs, and he did meet some important ones: Loftollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Nuri Hamadani, Mohammed Hosseini Shahroudi, Naser Makarem Shirazi, and Mousa Shobeiri Zanjani.
But the most senior and influential grand ayatollahs stayed away in droves. Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Bayat Asadullah, Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, Mohammad, Muhammad Ali Gerami Qomi, Sadegh Rouhani, Yusef Sanei, and Seyed Hosseini Shirazi, among others, would not meet with Khamenei. One press account by the Tabnak website, closely associated with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, noted that Khamenei met with the children of prominent cleric and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, but not with the ayatollah himself, a prominent critic. The supreme leader — a man who rose to his exalted position through political hardball, not religious scholarship — had clearly hoped to shore up his shaky religious stature during his trip to Qom. Instead, he only showed just how isolated he has become.
The story of the Qom clerics’ rejection of Khamenei, a biting irony in a theocracy, stretches back decades and is entangled in the opaque intricacies of Shiite Islam as practiced in post-revolutionary Iran.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s constitution mandated that the supreme leader be a cleric of senior rank, a major mujtahid. A major mujtahid is a cleric whose collected judicial rulings in all areas of life have been popularly acclaimed as demonstrating ijtihad, a comprehensive expertise in interpreting Islamic law. The position of the Supreme Leader was restricted to those very few senior clerics who could be deemed a marja, a major mujtahid universally recognized as being highly worthy of emulation. Such marjas usually have very large and devoted personal followings; they are theological rock stars. There are no exact rules, but generally speaking, major mujtahids are usually grand ayatollahs. Below that rank is ayatollah, and below that rank is hojjatoleslam, a rank similar to a monsignor or minor bishop in Catholicism. Each of those ranks is usually separated by years of study, thought, and an accumulation of judicial rulings examined for theological soundness in "peer review" by the clerical establishment. Anyone designated as a mere hojjatoleslam should therefore have fallen far short of the theological horsepower and popular following required by law.
How then, did Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei come to be the supreme leader, and what does that have to do with his October 2010 trip to Qom?
Once upon a time, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was the designated successor to Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, but after criticizing the many excesses of Khomeini’s regime, Montazeri was pulled from the running and eventually placed under house arrest in Qom, where he continued to lambaste the Iranian government until his death in late 2009. Not liking the field of potential successors, Khomeini had the Iranian constitution changed shortly before his death in 1989 to allow someone with a far less distinguished pedigree in Islamic jurisprudence to take the helm as supreme leader. This rejiggering of the constitution, along with the support of the powerful Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, helped paved the way for Khamenei’s ascension. Suddenly, it was as if this "monsignor," a minor mujtahid whose only book of judicial rulings had never even been printed in Farsi, was catapulted past more learned and senior bishops, archbishops, and cardinals to become pope. Little wonder that the ayatollahs of Qom have quietly dug in their heels and resisted Khamenei’s attempts to gain religious stature by associating himself with them.
Nor is this his first attempt at the ruse.
Roughly 10 years ago, Khamenei traveled to Qom and "bent the knee" by going to personally visit many senior Shiite clerics, an effort that won him no noticeable support and had little effect on his theological stature. The unstated hope of "round two" in Qom was that the senior clerical establishment would endorse Khamenei’s religious authority by either personally going to see the leader at his temporary residence, or by attending his public rallies and prayer services. One account before the trip began even suggested that the purpose of the trip was to gain endorsement for the supreme leader to attain the rank of marja-e-omoom, the definitive source for emulation and a clerical rank that has not been filled since 1961 — one that even Khomeini did not seek to claim.
With limited exceptions, the senior clerics stayed away, and the hoped-for validation of Khamenei’s religious stature has once again failed to materialize. In an interview last week with Radio Farda, Hamburg-based Iranian dissident Hassan Shariatmadari, son of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Kazem Shariatmadari, commented on Khamenei’s dismal reception, "If they accepted his authority, he would have not spent so many days [in Qom] and exerted such pressure to force marja to meet with him."
One notable exception was the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, a group that until the Iranian presidential elections of 2009 could have been described as solidly pro-government. A second day of meetings between society clerics and the supreme leader was inserted into the agenda at the last minute and took place on Thursday, Oct. 28, which extended Khamenei’s trip one day.
Meeting with this group, though, is unlikely to bolster Khamenei’s credentials. In 1995, the society named Khamenei as a possible marja, but there were one or two bobbles with that particular nomination. Usually the death of one marja produces the nomination of a single ayatollah as a replacement. The society used the occasion to nominate seven replacements, Khamenei among them, and at the same time, claimed that two ayatollahs already deemed worthy of emulation should no longer be considered so. Whatever the society may have sacrificed in religious legitimacy, it was admittedly efficient for them to combine a blatant ballot-stuffing exercise with a clerical "Night of the Long Knives." After the society’s nomination, Khamenei was generally accepted as an ayatollah (although he terms himself a grand ayatollah), but some top clerics still refuse to recognize him as such.
According to Rooz Online, a reformist website, the reason for Khamenei’s trip extension was to convince the society to do the same favor for his hard-line son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as they did for the supreme leader in 1995: getting Mojtaba declared a marja, thus opening up an eventual path for the son to succeed his father.
In his autobiography, Montazeri wrote that Khamenei’s first mention of holding the rank of ayatollah did not actually come from any Shiite religious authority, the normal path of advancement, but rather from booklets produced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, printed in Urdu and sent to Shiite communities in Pakistan and India, who immediately questioned the nomination. Upon notifying the ministry that its attempted end run to elevate Khamenei had not worked, Montazeri was rebuked by Iranian officials and people were warned not to communicate with him. It seems, then, that Khomeini’s shenanigans with the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers were hardly the first time he has tried to secure undeserved clerical rank.
Looking down the road, Khamenei’s future prospects for support from Qom are only growing worse. The clerics’ rejection of the supreme leader was not solely based on a thinly veiled contempt for a theological hack’s efforts to wrap himself in a mantle of unearned authority. Just as important is the philosophical difference that has evolved in post-revolutionary Shiite Islam about the proper role for a cleric in political life. After witnessing decades of abuses under a government helmed by clerics, Montazeri, one of the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, reversed his earlier views and stated that clerics should serve only as advisors to the temporal ruler, not as the ruler themselves. This is a view shared by other ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Dastgheib and the widely revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian by birth though now lives in Iraq.
Iran continues to show new signs of the economic strains on a daily basis; one of the latest being a ban by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the publication of any negative statements about the planned elimination of economic subsidies that have been the bedrock of popular support for the Iranian government. Bad economic news continues to exacerbate the internal divisions brought to the forefront by the rigged 2009 presidential elections. The Green Movement is quiet — violently suppressed but by no means finished forever.
If Khamenei was hoping to turn things around with a dramatic show of religious unity and power, then his visit to Qom was a miserable failure. Indeed, what is most notable about the trip is what did not happen: Neither Khamenei nor his son got any official elevation in their status; no grand religious initiative arose from the trip, and he was most definitely not greeted with open arms by most senior ayatollahs. The supreme leader won’t be resting easy this week.
More from Foreign Policy
Lessons for the Next War
Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.
It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse
Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.
Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine
The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.
Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.
Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.