Iranian Clerical Debate Over Election

Iranian electoral debate not only continues but appears to be intensifying within the clerical elite. It remains unclear whether the second generation (i.e., war vs Saddam) national security elite or the protestors will benefit more from the potential emerging power vacuum.

Three distinct messages are now circulating in Iranian media from senior clerics.

  • Representing the (fringe?) liberal flank of the Iranian clerical establishment, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri on Tuesday that “no one in their right mind can believe” the results of the Iranian presidential election.

  • On Thursday, conservative Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi enunciated what appears to be an emerging centrist clerical perspective most concerned with maintaining a united society under Islamic rule.

  • Today Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami laid out a harsh, uncompromising extremist line, essentially arguing that the regime is perfect by definition and all who beg to differ are traitors. As even Americans found out after 9/11, the potential for such anti-democratic extremism exists in all societies under stress.

Ahmad Khatami is a member of the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 Islamic scholars charged with supervising the Supreme Leader. His view of the U.S. is explicit. In 2007, for example, he said:

In order to pursue its interferences in independent countries of the world, the United States always backs up the process of soft coups, resorting to promotion of Western culture in so-called civil societies, creation of gaps between the nations and their governments through crisis generation and systematic activities of certain individuals, and launching psychological wars….Then in the long run, taking full advantage of the press, mass media, and intellectual circles, and launching feminist campaigns, they try to reap the fruits of their vast scale efforts.

If serious splits do in fact develop within the clergy, this could well create a power vacuum to the advantage of the elites of the military and national security agencies, i.e., the core elite supporters of Ahmadinejad. Whether or not it could rebound to the advantage of those protesting the regime’s official electoral outcome remains unclear.

Meanwhile, Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, has issued a moderate statement, criticizing the Interior Ministry for causing confusion by concealing electoral data and comparing Iran’s electoral dispute with the Florida scandal during the Bush-Gore race. Such a comparison implicitly chides both sides, suggesting that resolution should come through the courts (rather than the streets) but also implying that a legal issue actually exists that needs resolving, which would seem to challenge the position of hardliners (e.g., Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Ahmad Khatami). Whether or not such a legal process will occur remains unclear, but a separate legal procedure that could embarrass hardliners appears more likely now, with the announcement by Iran’s Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, an Ahmadinejad protégé hostile to student activists, that those who attacked Iranian universities (i.e., “Red Guard” Basij paramilitaries who assaulted student protestors) would be punished. Should that actually occur, it would symbolize a significant step toward the rule of law under the Islamic Republic.

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