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Iran: Top Cleric's Resignation Shows Extent Of Reformists' Frustrations

By Charles Recknagel/William Samii/Azam Gorgin

The resignation of a top reformist cleric is rocking Iran's establishment after he called Iran an "oppressed nation" and accused hard-liners of holding onto power unjustly. In the wake of Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri's resignation this week, many reformist parliamentarians have offered the cleric their support, but Iran's hard-line-dominated top security body has banned press discussion of his remarks. RFE/RL looks at why Taheri's resignation has set off such a furor and where events may go from here.

Prague, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The resignation letter that reformist cleric Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri issued on 8 July is causing a political uproar in Iran because it addresses several of the most sensitive questions in Iran today.

Some of those issues are frequently discussed in public and some -- perhaps the most dangerous ones for Iran's ruling clerical establishment -- almost never.

But all of them are considered sufficiently threatening that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked state officials today to refrain from making remarks that could be "misused by internal and external enemies."

That order from the supreme leader follows a command yesterday from Iran's hard-line-dominated top security body, the Supreme National Security Council, banning the press from discussing Taheri's statements. The council is made up of representatives of the supreme leader, the chief of the judiciary, the heads of the armed forces, and President Mohammad Khatami and top ministers.

Taheri, who for 30 years has held the highly visible position of Friday prayer leader in the central city of Isfahan, tendered his resignation in a tirade against the very clerical establishment of which he is a member. The fact that his complaints come with an inside knowledge of the system adds weight to what hard-liners might otherwise seek to discount as groundless criticism of their activities.

The reformist cleric accused the hard-liners who dominate Iran's establishment of betraying the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. He wrote that, "those in power are using the people's beliefs and religion to reach their own materialistic aims [and], unfortunately, are supporters of some violent people." He then listed some of the hard-liners' specific faults.

Taheri said these include "not obeying the law, the existence of illegal and irresponsible [unelected and unofficial] organizations, limiting [the powers of] parliament, implementing an unsuccessful foreign policy...[and] the existence of shadowy foundations in the economic fields."

He also said hard-liners had prompted a brain drain from the country by isolating intellectuals, arresting critics, and banning publications, among other things.

These complaints recapitulated many of the charges other reformist leaders have levied against the hard-liners. As such, they immediately found resonance with reformist parliamentarians. Nearly half of the reformist-dominated parliament -- 125 of its deputies -- swiftly signed a petition calling on the conservatives to heed Taheri's demands for change. At the same time, the main organization of Iranian students, the Office to Consolidate Unity, also issued a statement giving Taheri its support.

Some reformist clerics in Iran say Taheri's resignation is a measure of the frustrations felt by many top reformists and even by President Khatami, who threatened in May to resign if his efforts at reform continue to be stymied by hard-liners.

Hojatoleslam Ahmed Qabel, a cleric in the Iranian holy city of Qom, told RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Mehdi Khalaji yesterday from Tehran that Taheri has fulfilled warnings that if change does not occur, reformists will refuse to participate in the system. Qabel himself was released last month on bail after more than three months in jail on charges of criticizing the supreme leader. "This is, in fact, a continuation of Mohammed Khatami's recent threat of resignation. In essence, the parliamentarians and [those in the] presidency and others who have compassion for Iran are worried about the situation and are perpetually warning that if change does not occur, they cannot withstand and witness all the difficulties, and essentially the system is irreparable and nothing can change it. And as Ayatollah Taheri said, this is autocracy," Qabel said.

Qabel also warned that other such resignations could follow. "This [resignation] is not in contradiction with pro-reform opinions. The difference is only in the degree of [individual reformist's access to] information and [their] capacity for tolerance. It is easier for Ayatollah Taheri to resign from being a Friday prayer leader because he holds a lesser degree of responsibility than Mohammed Khatami does in the capacity of president, and so he did resign," Qabel said.

Taheri did not restrict his criticisms of the hard-liners to mere complaints about their abuses of power. He also entered much more taboo territory by saying that some of the country's current ruling clerics -- and implying that includes the supreme leader -- should not be in charge of the country's political affairs.

Taheri said that the right of religious rule belongs to the 12th imam, a figure who Shiite Muslims believe will one day return to usher in an era of peace and justice. Today, the right of religious rule is in the hands of Supreme Leader Khamenei as the "velayat-e-faqih," or "ruling religious jurist," empowered to make a final decision on any issue based on his own interpretation of religious law.

Questions regarding religious rule are considered political dynamite within Iran's clerical establishment because they highlight divisions within the clergy itself over whether Khamenei is a fit successor to the Islamic Revolution's first "ruling religious jurist," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, the revolution's founder, appointed Taheri to his post in Isfahan, and Taheri's resignation suggests that he feels Khamenei is not competent to hold such supreme power.

Ahmed Salamatian, a former member of parliament from Isfahan, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Taheri's resignation is a sign that long-standing splits within the clergy are deepening. "This is one of the most important disagreements among the ruling clergy in more than 20 years, and the vital significance is that a Friday prayer leader, appointed by the supreme leader, for the first time states that his remaining in power would be detrimental to his social reputation," Salamatian said. "Therefore, this is a new implosion within the ruling clergy which, because of its significant influential power, is of paramount importance and resembles discourses that demand the exclusion of clergies from governing," Salamatian added.

The divisions within the clergy have long been symbolized by the house arrest of the man Khomeini originally named to be his successor, Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, who is still regarded by many as Iran's highest religious authority. Montazeri was later bypassed by Khomeini after questioning, among other things, the extent to which clerics should engage in politics. Montazeri and other clerics have worried that engaging in politics risks driving people away from religion.

Taheri called for the release of Montazeri, who has been under house arrest since 1997 by Khomeini's final choice of a successor, Khamenei. The call for release was also a suggestion that Khamenei, who until his appointment as supreme leader was a mid-level cleric, does not have the religious stature to silence Montazeri, who is an avowed reformist.

Now that Taheri has openly aired his complaints, they are almost certain to be widely discussed among Iranians, whether or not that discussion is banned from the press. One of Iran's few remaining reformist newspapers, "Norouz," appeared to invite such debate by publishing a number of blank columns yesterday following the press ban. The blank spaces were where the paper had planned to carry articles covering reaction to the resignation letter.

One key question now for the reformists will be to decide for themselves whether they want to follow Taheri's example. That is, to decide whether they want to continue seeking change through compromises with the hard-liners -- as Khatami has tried -- or whether, instead, to refuse to work with the hard-liners at all.

The question is not an easy one, because any decision not to compromise ensures a serious escalation in the already fierce struggle for power between the two sides. But, as Taheri's resignation has shown, it is a question that is increasingly impossible to put off amid the hard-liners' continuing efforts to roll back the reformists, despite the reformists' consistent wins in popular elections.

Khamenei moved today to try to soothe some of the sting for the ruling elite in Taheri's resignation letter by claiming to recognize already some of the complaints and to be working to solve them, In a statement read on state radio he said, "These are just issues about which I have been giving warnings in the past few years at public gatherings and at meetings with relevant officials."

The supreme leader also warned that Iran's enemies -- what he called "the counterrevolutionaries, who live and feed under the shadow of America and Israel and with their money" -- are trying to misuse Taheri's statement.

The question for Iran's ruling elite now will be whether such gestures are sufficient to answer the public concerns that Taheri's letter summarizes. Regardless of what happens to Taheri, the ruling elite must face the fact that public resentment over these issues is a reality of Iranian politics. And it is just as clear that Iran's leaders ignore such resentment at their own peril.

Efforts to make public concerns disappear by forbidding discussion about them or trying to link them with purported foreign enemies are unlikely to make them go away.