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Ayatollah Saanei Succeeds Montazeri as Spiritual Guide for Iran's Opposition

By Shayan Ghajar,

Ayatollah Saanei

In a country as spiritual as Iran, it is impossible to separate religious and political issues. Any political movement or faction must substantiate its views and stances with religious rationale based on the rulings of a qualified Shi'a scholar, or risk appearing marginalized.

Thus, upon the December 19 death of the leading reformist ayatollah in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the Green Movement was left without its spiritual leader and its greatest source of religious legitimacy. Ayatollah Montazeri had been an active leader in the reformist movement, not only politically, but by issuing religious decrees supporting reformist positions.

Now, stepping into the vacuum left by Montazeri's death is another prominent reformist ayatollah who has emerged to provide the Green Movement with spiritual guidance and ideological support: Grand Ayatollah Yousuf Saanei declared on December 20 his desire to continue Ayatollah Montazeri's work and honor his legacy, assuming his mantle as the most prominent clerical reformist. His statement may be found here .

Ayatollahs Montazeri and Saanei

Ayatollah Saanei is known for his dynamic involvement in contemporary issues that serve as sources of contention both politically and theologically. He supports complete legal and social equality for women and condemns both terrorism and nuclear proliferation as un-Islamic. A 2007 interview with him by the newspaper Asharq al Awsat discussed his opinions on current social and political issues. It can be found here. Saanei's translated book, The Essence of Thoughts, is posted on his website and delineates his views on Islam and modern society.

Saanei's credentials in both the theological and political spheres are considerable. He is recognized as a grand ayatollah and a source of emulation for Shiite Muslims. His revolutionary background is also notable, having been a trusted supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Saanei served in the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, and the Judiciary branch in the early 1980s. Khomeini's positive opinions of him may be found here.

His assumption of Montazeri's mantle and his scholarly and religious preeminence and popularity already have elicited a response from the hardliners in the Iranian establishment. His house and office in Qom were attacked by paramilitaries the day of Montazeri's funeral, which the government banned Saanei from attending. His office in Shiraz was attacked last week as well.

On January 2, senior hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and the affiliated Qom Lecturer's Association attempted to discredit Ayatollah Saanei by declaring him to be ineligible to be a Marja-e Taqlid, or source of emulation and guidance to Shiite Muslims. The story was featured on all state-affiliated news agencies.

Ayatollah Yazdi's attempt to discredit Saanei has no precedent in Shiite history-ayatollahs may confirm the religious ranking of a scholarly peer, but never have had the religious authority de facto to excommunicate or demote him from the ranking. A nuanced discussion of the rank and position of a Marja (source of emulation) in relation to Yazdi's statement about Saanei may be found here.

Saanei has hit the ground running in terms of advising the Green Movement and its leaders. Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi stayed in Saanei's house before attending Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral, no doubt discussing the current situation with him during their stay. Furthermore, Saanei has been in constant contact with Moussavi. The Farsi version of his website indicates that he has been on the phone with Moussavi multiple times, the latest to give his condolences on the assassination of Moussavi's nephew, who allegedly was killed by state security agents to place pressure on Mir Hossein Moussavi. Even before Montazeri's death, Saanei and Moussavi exchanged letters discussing the philosophy and spiritual basis of their resistance to the government. Saanei's statements also have been posted on Moussavi's Facebook page in the past few months.

Ayatollah Saanei and Mir Hossein Mousavi at Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral

It is clear that Saanei already is proving to be a force to be reckoned with. The hardliners' impotent and largely symbolic actions against him have merely accorded him more status with the Green Movement and have yet to hinder his actions or agenda in any discernable way. Moreover, Saanei's activism may prove even more dynamic than Montazeri's, as Montazeri was hampered both by his advanced age and the house arrest imposed on him by hardliners. Furthermore, Montazeri's house arrest was a result of his fall from Ayatollah Khomeini's grace. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, lacks the spiritual credentials to do the same to Saanei. In short, Saanei is almost impossible to marginalize.

As Saanei's momentum continues to build, and he continues to propagate his ideals of a more tolerant and socially egalitarian Islamic Republic, it will be critical to the current tensions in Iran to see how the hardliners attempt to counteract him. At this point, it seems the hardliners themselves are not entirely sure.

About: is a bi-weekly journal of analysis and research written primarily by scholars and activists living inside Iran and those who have recently left the country. Our purpose is to provide in-depth information about the internal political dynamic that is unavailable in the mainstream media. Through research and commentary, we will continue to document the political and theological crisis.

... Payvand News - 01/06/10 ... --

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