Reformists Cling To Islamic Republic Ideal As Khamenei Sounds The Death Knell
By Robert Tait,
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has been dead for more
than two decades and the true nature of his beliefs are hotly disputed. But
standing in Tehran's Imam Khomeini shrine, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, had no doubts about his predecessor's revolutionary vision.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses Iranians on the anniversary of Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini's death.
"The foremost major point in his thoughts and ideas was pure Mohammadian Islam,"
Khamenei told a vast crowd gathered to mark the 21st anniversary of Ayatollah
Khomeini's death on June 4. "The fulfillment of pure Islam would not be possible
except through the sovereignty of Islam and the establishment of an Islamic
system. The Imam [Khomeini] considered the Islamic republic to be the embodiment
of Islamic governance."
It was Khamenei's clearest statement yet on a question that has roiled Iranian
politics since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office with the backing of
religious hard-liners five years ago: is Iran an Islamic republic -- subject to
the popular will -- or merely an Islamic state ruled by Shari'a law as defined
by a tiny circle of hard-line clerics?
The supreme leader, who was appointed Iran's most powerful cleric after Khomeini
died in 1989, appeared to be opting emphatically for the latter -- and thereby
pronouncing the end of the Islamic republic as would-be liberalizing reformists
know it, according to Professor Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian
Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
"He said that what Khomeini wanted was an Islamic state," says Ansari. "I
thought that was quite extraordinary, given the debates that have taken place
over the last decade, if not two decades, where Khomeini had said quite clearly,
Islamic republic, not one word more, not one word less. What Khamenei is saying
is that that's not true, that actually the Islamic republic was merely a window
dressing for a different agenda. If that's the case, I think the Islamic
republic is not only over in practice, but now it's over in theory as well."
Issued in the run-up to the anniversary on June 12 of last year's bitterly
disputed presidential election, the remarks served as a definitive rebuff to the
millions of green-clad protesters who took to the streets chanting "Where is my
vote?" in support of Mir Hossein Musavi's claim that victory was stolen from him
and handed to Ahmadinejad through rampant ballot rigging.
They also suggested that Khamenei endorses the views of Ahmadinejad's presumed
spiritual mentor, the ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi
Mesbah-Yazdi, who has declared that the 1979 revolution's true goal was to
establish an Islamic government and dismissed elections as rubber-stamping
exercises to display loyalty to the religious leadership.
In questioning the poll's validity, Musavi and his fellow reformist, Mehdi
Karrubi, the opposition Green Movement's nominal leaders, have repeatedly argued
that the principle of free and fair elections was central to Khomeini's
blueprint, as embodied in the revolution's rallying cry, "freedom, independence,
Islamic republic." Mesbah-Yazdi, by contrast, has disparaged the idea of an
Islamic republic as a contradiction in terms and called the republican element
of the Iranian state a concession to secular forces that should be jettisoned.
Fueling the controversy is a dichotomy at the heart of the constitution Iran
adopted after the 1979 revolution. The document enshrined Khomeini's principal
of velayat-e faqi, or rule by a senior religious jurisprudence -- represented by
the position of supreme leader. But it also contained a significant republican
element allowing for a freely elected president and parliament, as well as a
supposedly independent judiciary.
It is this hybrid system the reformists have invoked in their insistence that
the ideals of the revolution are being betrayed.
Musavi, who was Iran's prime minister under Khomeini for eight years during the
1980s, has attempted to emphasize his closeness to the late revolutionary leader
as a political trump card in fending off hard-line accusations that he wants to
overthrow the Islamic system. Interviewed last week by his website, Kalemeh,
Musavi accused the authorities of misusing Khomeini's name and sullying his
"Some in this country are busy destroying everything, including Khomeini's
legacy and the first decade of the revolution, for the sake of worldly ambitions
and their own positions," he said. "An accurate and fair presentation of the
revolution would have a destructive effect on today's oppressive policies."
Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
believes such revolutionary faith betrays a political naiveté reminiscent of the
Bolsheviks executed in Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.
Like Stalin's adversaries, the reformists' ideological earnestness represents a
threat to the leader's quest for unfettered power that could have dangerous
consequences, he says.
"Ayatollah Khamenei is against anyone who wants to judge him based on Islam,
Islamic tradition, Islamic ideology, even the constitution," Khalaji says. "It's
very dangerous now to say that Ayatollah Khamenei is working outside the
framework of the constitution or he is working against the constitution, because
the leader wants to say: 'I am the criteria, I am the incarnation of the
ideology. There are no criteria beside me, beyond me, outside me.'"
It is a warning to which the reformists are paying little heed. In a recent
interview with the opposition website Rah-e Sabz, Karrubi appeared to throw down
a new challenge to Khamenei by suggesting he be subject to greater scrutiny by
the experts' assembly, a directly-elected clerical body theoretically empowered
to dismiss him. Karrubi said the assembly had been rendered toothless by rule
changes which mean candidates are vetted by the Guardians Council -- whose
members are appointed by Khamenei -- rather than independent seminary heads as
the constitution intended.
His plea echoes the belief of former insiders that the regime has lost its
clerical nature, a sentiment reflected in the scorn many ayatollahs privately
hold for Ahmadinejad. Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian Islamic scholar now exiled
in the United States, last month wrote to Iran's grand ayatollahs urging them to
abandon Qom, home to the country's religious establishment, for Najaf in Iraq in
protest against the regime's idea of "Shi'ite Islamic government," which he
branded a "fictitious tale." Khalaji, himself a former Qom seminary student,
believes the regime's character bears the imprint of Khamenei's military
background rather than any religious teaching.
"It's not clerical. Khamenei himself spent much more time in the military than
he spent in the seminary," argues Khalaji. "He was involved in the army and the
Revolutionary Guards since the day after the Iranian Revolution until now, so
he's been in the military business since 31 years ago and he did not study in
the seminary for 31 years. Khamenei's power comes from the Revolutionary
Heading Toward Irrelevance?
The regime's peculiar brand of religious anticlericalism has encouraged
speculation that a future supreme leader need not be a highly-qualified
theologian in the traditional sense but merely an individual possessing the
requisite "pure" qualities. Khamenei himself was appointed to the post while
holding the relatively humble clerical rank of hajatoleslam. His son, Mojteba,
widely believed to have orchestrated Ahmadinejad's election victory and the
subsequent crackdown, has been tipped as a possible successor, even though the
role is not supposed to be hereditary.
Meanwhile, some clerics have complained that even Ahmadinejad, who lacks any
formal religious training, has been issuing decrees tantamount to Islamic fatwas
that should be the preserve of qualified clerics.
Against this backdrop, Musavi's and Karrubi's fidelity to the Islamic republic
risks alienating many of their followers who do not share their nostalgia for
the revolution or for Khomeini. Some even warn that the pair might fade into
irrelevance amid a wave of radical demands from a generation more interested in
securing greater personal freedoms and too young to remember the overthrow of
Mehdi Khonsari, senior researcher at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in
London, says the two reformists are sacrificing their credibility by pledging
allegiance to a system that has spearheaded a ferocious crackdown against their
"Mr. Musavi and Mr. Karrubi cannot want to keep the system," Khonsari declares,
"a system that remains totally inflexible to any of their demands and refuses to
engage them and offer them any kind of a concession or compromise in any way
with them. So people who are supporting them will at a point reach the
conclusion that they are not getting the kind of leadership they need for the
kind of sacrifices they've been making."
The criticism has not been lost on Karrubi, who recently responded by cautioning
Iranians abroad against making radical demands which, he said, give the
authorities an excuse to resort to further repression.
Mohsen Sazegara, president of the Washington-based Research Institute for
Contemporary Iran and one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guards, suggests
the two men are privately more in tune with supporters than their cautious
public statements suggest.
"They understand the contradictions inside this regime better now than one year
ago," he insists. "This is the main reason that they have repeated several times
that after this stage of the Green Movement, which is to bring down the
government of Ahmadinejad, then we should go for a free election -- an election
that everybody can participate in and the people who believe in a secular regime
can have their own candidate and the final judge between the people and the
regime will be ballot boxes."
In the meantime, even if the ideals Musavi and Karrubi extol have been reduced
to a mirage, keeping up a pretense of loyalty may suit their long-term interests
better than bowing to radical demands. Ansari believes such an approach enables
them to play a long game that involves keeping channels open to privately
sympathetic regime insiders, Ansari believes.
"What's important for them is to appeal to members of the elite and say we are
not going 180 degrees [in] the other direction, we still adhere to the
principles of the revolution, but the revolution we adhere to is a different one
than what you adhere to," he says.
"What it means is that when they are talking to members of the elite, who may be
a little bit wary of moving, it feels as if it is part of one agenda, still part
of the legacy," Ansari continues. "They are not arguing for a complete overthrow
of the system, which, in a practical sense, a lot of Iranians would be very wary
of going down that route."
Musavi and Karrubi are effectively trying to stay relevant in the eyes of two
distinct and contrasting constituencies. It is a tortuous balancing act on
Iran's constantly moving political quicksands. Performing it runs the risk of
disappearing into the same black hole that has swallowed up their beloved
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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