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In Iran, Speculation Rife Over Supreme Leader's Rare Visit To Qom


A man writes pro-Khamenei slogans on the windshield of a car in Qom ahead of the supreme leader's visit.
A man writes pro-Khamenei slogans on the windshield of a car in Qom ahead of the supreme leader's visit.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has arrived in Iran's holiest city for the first time in well over a year, leading some observers to consider the supreme leader's trip to Qom as an image-restoring exercise.

Amid the chaos that reigned following the 2009 presidential election, Khamenei's position and legitimacy suffered in the eyes of many Iranians. As rifts within the Iranian establishment were exposed, the supreme leader's reputation as an all-mighty and impartial leader above the political fray took a beating, with some protesters daring to openly call him a dictator.

Paris-based analyst and religious scholar Mohammad Javad Akbarein told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that by visiting Qom in a carefully orchestrated visit, Khamenei hopes to show his authority and regain his status.

"A leader, whose political and social legitimacy is being threatened, can only rely on his religious legitimacy," Akbarein says. "For that reason, he needs to be legitimate in Qom and among clerics. He needs to demonstrate to people that he still has a special place in Qom, which is considered the center of religion in Iran."

Khamenei, then, can be expected to attempt to repair ties with senior clerics and sources of emulation that have fallen out of line with the establishment. His trip is also seen by observers as a way of intimidating those clerics who have been vocal in their criticism of the regime's brutal response to the postelection unrest.

Journalist Serajedin Mirdamadi, who last year campaigned for opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, believes the supreme leader is unlikely to succeed.

"The language of the establishment has always been a language of threat and not a moderate language that would convince," Mirdamadi says. "So this kind of language cannot be effective in the case of senior clerics and sources of emulation. Maybe it will force them into silence, but it won't put them in line [with Khamenei]."

Websites Blocked

In recent months, several senior clerics who have been critical of the Iranian establishment -- including Ayatollah Yusef Sanei and Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheyb -- have come under pressure by pro-government forces. Earlier this month, in a move that appears aimed at silencing them, authorities blocked their websites.

Ahead of Khamenei's trip, a group calling itself the Clerics and Seminarians of Qom warned in an open letter that Khamenei was traveling to Qom to confirm his "marja'iat," the authority to offer decisions and issue instructions on issues of modern life in keeping with Islamic principles.

The group warned that meeting with the Iranian supreme leader would be akin to approving what it describes as the crimes of the Iranian establishment and contradicting Islamic interpretation and Koranic concepts.

Opposition websites report that thousands of pictures of Khamenei have been distributed in Qom and plastered around the city, in shops and public buildings. Pictures show cars bearing painted slogans elevating Khamenei's status to "imam."

Khamenei's supporters have described his visit to Qom as a "historic" and "significant" trip that will help strengthen unity in the country. The temporary Friday Prayer leader of Qom, Seyed Mohammad Saidi, has said that welcoming Khamenei in Qom is like welcoming the Hidden Imam.

Critics, meanwhile, have lampooned the preparations for Khamenei's visit, saying they are fit for a king being crowned.

Radio Farda broadcaster Arash Hassania contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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