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Essay Mesbah Yazdi

Within Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's small circle, there are two men in which the Iranian president has total trust. They are his old friends and are as religious as he is, and share the same vision. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie and Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi are the two closest allies of the Iranian president. Hashemi, who acts as the president's adviser, is not in the spotlight as much as Rahim Mashaie, Ahmadinejad's chief of staff. The appearance of a government official such as Rahim Mashaie, who isn't afraid to express himself so openly and unconditionally, is very new and unusual for many conservatives. In Iran, where most politicians pretend to believe in many things in order to gain or stay in power, there are not too many people like Mashaie, who is direct, gets straight to the point and doesn't worry about offending Iran's clergy.

Because of this major difference, Mashaie has earned the wrath of most of the country's hardliners clerics, spanning from members of the Iranian parliament with low religious ranking, such as Hojat Al-Islam Hamid Rassai, to those at the top of Iran's religious establishment, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, who as head of the Guardian Council confronted president Ahmadinejad and demanded the expulsion of his controversial chief of staff.

In Iran, as in other dictatorships, the leader needs to remain popular and well-known. And in Iran the only person who must be adored and allowed to express himself regarding Iran's religious and national interests is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even the president is granted legitimacy only with the supreme leader's approval.

Now there are rumblings of panic and doubt about Ahmadinejad's intentions towards Iran's system of clerical rule. Is it possible that someone like Ahmadinejad may ultimately be the one to put an end to Iran's rolling system of totalitarian dictatorship, the Velayat Faghih? And if this happens, what kind of government will replace it?

"We must be alert," said Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, widely viewed as Ahmadinejad's spiritual adviser, in recent remarks that surprised many in the Islamic Republic, especially reformists. "Certain people [within Ahadinejad's government] who are shamelessly promoting the Iranian school in the place of the Islamic school, are outsiders, not insiders," he said.

More surprising were comments by General Hassan Firouz Abadi, the head of the Iranian armed forces' joint command, referring to remarks made by Mashaie as "deviant." Firouz Abadi said that the president's chief of staff, has invited "theoreticians of soft war and CIA spies into the country." At a time when Iran is faced with a serious threat of confrontation with foreign powers over its nuclear program, why are the country's conservatives bickering like this between one another?

Iran's political reality is starting to come out from under its curtain, and we should soon expect a new kind of relationship to develop between Ahmadinejad and the orthodox clergy within the Iranian system. We will soon probably see deep, open clashes between the Iranian president and clerics that will culminate into an ugly battle in the run up to the next presidential election.

What has alarmed Mesbah Yazdi, who famously advocates an extremely fundamentalist reading of Islam, are not just Mashaie's actions and rhetoric, but the possibility that clerical rule could come to an end in Iran. The country's clerics are worried about the future of Ayatollah Khameni's post as supreme leader, and are alarmed about the future of supreme leadership in Iran if Ahmadinejad and his allies remain in power after Khameni is gone.

Ahmadinejad's frequent requests for a debate with US President Barack Obama, despite the Supreme leader's open opposition to any direct US-Iran talks, has also made high ranking clerics very suspicious of the Iranian president's real goals. He has always openly showed his apathy towards being approved or disproved of by Iran's Ayatollahs, and during his most recent visit to the holy city of Qom on March 2010 , didn't bother to visit any heavy weight Ayatollahs. When rumors circulated that Ahmadinejad had failed to meet some of the country's famous Ayatollahs, the president's office merely issued a statement saying that the president had a very busy schedule and unfortunately didn't have enough time to visit the grand Ayatollahs.

There is underlying fear within Iran's clerical establishment that Ahmadinejad plans for one of his trusted aides to become the country's next president. With the advent of a new era in Iran without Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad may send the country's current religious leaders back to the seminary in Qom, or ask unhappy clerics, such as Hojatol-Islam Hamid Rassai, to pack and leave for Najaf!

While it's impossible to read Ahmadinejad's mind, it is becoming quite certain that during this post-election period, he is striving to find an audience among Iran's disenfranchised youth, intellectuals and middle class. Last week, during a ceremony commemorating a national day for reporters, the president asked the judiciary to pardon any journalists charged with criticizing the government. The next day, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani called the president's request "unrealistic."

Whether Iranians are with Ahmadinejad or against him, there will undoubtedly be a great deal of general jubilation to see someone in Iran's leadership stand up to the ruling system. What Rahim Mashaie said during this year's Iranian scholars' conference in Tehran on August 8th was exactly what much of the Iranian public believes. At the conference, Mr Mashaie talked about the supremacy of an Iranian version of Islam. that angered many clerics who found in it some suggestion of favoring nationalism versus Islam.

Orthodox clerics like Mesbah Yazi and others are pushing the president to expel Rahim Mashaie, but without even knowing it, they are indirectly increasing Mashaie's popularity and making him appear more interesting and different to the general public. Iranians who are tired of the role clerics have played in the country's government would welcome any kind of leadership that separates governance from the seminary. While this could be a very dangerous move if power falls into the hands of the Basij militia or the Revolutionary Guards, some sort of change must take place in order to exit the current deadlock, even if it means that circumstances will become even more difficult inside Iran.

Is this what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is counting on or thinking about?

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​​A prominent Iranian cleric is under threat of execution. Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi has been in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran since October 2006.

According to a statement by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Ayatollah Boroujerdi and seventeen of his followers were sentenced to death on June 10th by a "Special Court of Clerics."

Over the last few days, many Iranian bloggers have reported the death sentence against Ayatollah Boroujerdi. But the semi-state news agency ILNA quoted a spokesman for the Special Court, denying reports of a death sentence, and saying that the court had not yet handed down its verdict on the Ayatollah and his supporters.

Secularism unwelcome

If it is indeed true that Ayatollah Boroujerdi has been sentenced to death by his fellow-clerics in the Islamic Republic, it would be due to the fact that he has fundamentally called the rule of the Mullahs in his country into question.

Since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the country has been ruled by the Ayatollahs, and clerics who want to see a separation of religion and politics have found their views unwelcome.

This is not the first time that clerics who are critical and "traditional" have been pursued by the Islamic state. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, for example, whom Ayatollah Khomeini once named as his chosen successor, has been under house arrest for the last 16 years.

A few days before he was arrested, Boroujerdi said that he wanted people to be able to pray to God and praise him without any political involvement. The kind of non-political Islam he supports is officially seen as a kind of heresy.

Islamisation of politics, politicisation of Islam

Even before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini had already laid out his doctrine of the "rule by religious scholars" ("Velāyat-e Faqih").

According to the doctrine, any government which is not approved by the scholars, who are the representatives on earth of the "hidden Imam" (the twelfth Imam of the Shiites), is illegal and not Islamic. But in fact, Shiite religious tradition is opposed to any mixing of religion and politics.

As a result, directly following the revolution, Khomeini's "Islamisation of politics" was greeted with little enthusiasm among the Ayatollahs. But after the establishment of the Islamic Republic Khomeini and his supporters were able to impose their views on rule by religious scholars.

Supporters of a separation of politics and religion have since then often been brutally repressed. Especially since the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president two years ago, the regime has been particular tough against religious groups and communities which support a non-political kind of Islam.

Warning against creeping secularisation

Now, 28 years after the revolution, the calls for a secular order in Iran are becoming ever louder. Ayatollah Ahmad Chatami, a radical cleric close to the country's supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, and a leading member of the Council of Experts which chooses the country's supreme religious leader, recently warned in a speech in Tabriz in the North-west of Iran against the idea of a separation between politics and religion, which, he said, was widespread among "certain Mullahs."

Hasan Shariatmadari, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, who was a supporter of a non-political, traditional Islam, describes this warning as a sign of the crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic Republic.

Speaking to the Persian-language radio station, "Radio Farda", he said that, throughout its 1,400 year old history, Shia Islam had always held to its principle of the independence of religious schools and the separation between religion and politics.

"With their theory of the rule of religious scholars," says Shariatmadari, "it was only Khomeini and his followers who turned the government into a matter of religion, and religion into a matter of the state."

Lost reputation

While there is always lively protest at home and abroad among opposition groups and activists whenever a figure from the political opposition is arrested in the Islamic Republic, the case of Ayatollah Boroujerdi and his supporters has scarcely been noticed.

The fact that a large part of the population – avbove all students and activists in political groups – have turned their backs on the clerics and religion seems also to be a result of the totalitarian rule of the Mullahs.

Ayatollah Boroujerdi, who calls the Islamic Republic a "dictatorship by the clergy" and speaks of a separation of religion and politics, is now trying to win back "the lost reputation of religion" in Iranian society.

While Mohammad Chatami was president, reformers tried in their own way, but in vain, to achieve "independence of religion from the government," in that they tried to achieve a "religious government" (or "Islamic democracy") instead of a "state religion."

Return to traditional religion

At the same time, the separation of politics and religion would mean the end of the Islamic Republic in its current form. The ruling Ayatollahs have evidently recognised the problem. With Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Ayatollahs have permitted a non-cleric to be elected to the presidency for the first time.

Before that – also for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic – they had entrusted the post of speaker of the parliament to Golam Ali Hadad. This could have been intended to prevent the clerics from further losing respect as symbols of religion, even though, according to Hasan Shariatmadari, it is only a small group of Ayatollahs which are privileged to be involved in state matters.

"Many clerics in Iran miss freedom of thought and opinion," he says. "They do their best to defend a return to traditional religion." But attempts to re-establish the independence of the Shiite clerics, could mean that some of them, like Ayatollah Boroujerdi, may have to pay a high price.

Ghasem Toulany

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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