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Reformists Cling To Islamic Republic Ideal As Khamenei Sounds The Death Knell

  • Robert Tait

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses Iranians on the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses Iranians on the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death.

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.

"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."

Hybrid System

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 legacy.

"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."

Above Scrutiny

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 Guards."

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 the shah.

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 supporters.

"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.

Balancing Act

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 Islamic republic.

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