Ayatollah Dastgheib says Supreme Leader's powers temporal, not God-given.
While Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been trying to bolster his support by visiting senior members of the Shia Muslim hierarchy in Qom, an influential ayatollah has spoken out against him 800 kilometres away in the city of Shiraz.
Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, who has been dubbed the "Green Ayatollah" - green being the colour adopted by the opposition - raised doubts about the powers exercised by Khamenei in response to a question from one of his followers.
The Supreme Leadership, a post first held by the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is generally held to be above partisan politics and beyond criticism.
Dastgheib effectively questioned both the man and his position when he said on September 29 that the Supreme Leader did not obtain his legitimacy from God - as the conventional conservative view holds - but was simply appointed by the Assembly of Experts to oversee the work of Iran's executive, legislature and judiciary and ensure they did not abuse civil rights.
"This person is in no way appointed by God Almighty," Dastgheib said. Apart from his oversight of the institutions of government, the Supreme Leader "has no other rights.... [he has] absolutely no right to interfere in people's affairs."
Ayatollah Dastgheib's comments were in stark contrast to the prevailing official view that Khamenei as Supreme Leader has been chosen by divine will and is empowered to exert his authority in all spheres of life.
The Supreme Leadership derives from a central principle of Islamic Iran, the constitutionally-enshrined "velayat-e faqih", which translates as "the guardianship of the jurisprudent" and means that the work of government should be overseen and guided by expert practitioners of Shia law.
In practice, the function of velayat-e faqih was vested in Khomeini himself as Supreme Leader. When he died in 1989, the post and consequently the role of embodying velayat-e faqih passed to Khamenei. Conservatives regard any hint that the current one-man arrangement is unsatisfactory, or that the Supreme Leader's legitimacy does not come from God, as all but treasonous.
In his remarks, Dastgheib implied that the Supreme Leadership's role must be limited if the incumbent has not attained the status of "marja-ye taqlid", a "source of emulation" empowered to issue rulings on Islamic law.
The marjas are the top clerics in the Shia hierarchy. Dastgheib is one; Khamenei was not when he was appointed Supreme Leader and his subsequent elevation is still disputed by some in the clerical establishment.
Dastgheib speaks from a position of authority as for the last two decades he has been a member of Assembly of Experts, which is a group of 86 senior clerics whose role is to appoint the Supreme Leader and monitor his actions. He is the leading figure at the Shiraz seminary.
Always an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime as currently constituted, Dastgheib took centre stage in the clerical opposition after the death last December of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.
His latest remarks came three weeks before Khamenei visited Qom, the senior theological centre in Iran. The Supreme Leader's October 20 trip to seek support from the marjas was the first time he had gone there officially in ten years, although he had paid unofficial, unpublicised visits.
The complex balance of political and theological power in Iran means that even the Supreme Leader needs to have the approval and support not only of the senior clerics who sit in the Assembly of Experts, but also the marjas and ayatollahs of Qom, who exercise great public influence.
The Qom seminary has always played a central role in Iran's recent history as a centre of resistance and revolution.
By the time Khameini arrived, an open letter that Dastgheib wrote to the Assembly of Experts in mid-September was in circulation among clerics. In it, he criticised his fellow Assembly members for their silence on the harsh methods the government deployed against Iranians to crush the protests following the June 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Marjas and ayatollahs, he said, were unhappy with the way things were going in Iran.
During last year's demonstrations when numerous opposition supporters were arrested, Dastgheib offered open and blunt criticism of Khamenei's leadership style. He called an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Experts to discuss his concerns, and wrote to members saying, "It is not right for one person to be in charge of the country".
This stance has won Ayatollah Dastgheib supporters not just among his own disciples and religious Iranians, but also among younger followers of the opposition Green Movement. There are numerous blogs and websites dedicated to publishing his pronouncements and letters.
Conservative forces, meanwhile, have been moving against Dastgheib for some time.
Following Dastgheib's most recent remarks, and two weeks before Khamenei went to Qom, his website was blocked in Iran.
Earlier, at the beginning of September, the latest in a series of mob attacks on the Ghoba Mosque in Shiraz, where Ayatollah Dastgheib has led Friday prayers for over 40 years, damaged the building and left a number of people injured.
Over the past year, a number of Ayatollah Dastgheib's students at the Shiraz seminary have been arrested and jailed.
On the internet, pro-Khamenei seminary students and members of the Basiji volunteer force are mounting their own campaign with blogs defaming Dastgheib.
These various attacks prompted some of Dastgheib's students to write an open letter, circulated while Khameini was in Qom, in which they pleaded with the Ayatollahs there to counter attempts to discredit clerics and stop attacks on the offices of marjas like Dastgheib.
Dastgheib's views are not, however, shared by the majority of members of the Assembly of Experts, who are in the main loyal supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei.
At a meeting with the Supreme Leader in September 2009, members even proposed expelling him from the Assembly of Experts.
In response to these calls, Ayatollah Khamenei said he did not think expulsion would be "very appropriate".
Dastgheib could face disqualification next time elections are held for the Assembly of Experts, although that might not happen until 2016. Candidates for the Assembly are vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader has an unofficial veto over the Guardian Council's choices.
Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist based in Los Angeles whose area of study is conflict resolution and peace-building. She was previously editor of several daily newspapers in Tehran.
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