Clerical Rumblings Reported in Iran as Opposition Figures Continue to Demand New Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | June 22, 2009 | 2:45 AM EDT

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, second left, speaks at a meeting in Tehran with unidentified representatives of the presidential candidates on Wednesday June 17, 2009 . (AP Photo/Iranian supreme leader’s Web site)

( – As Iranian opposition figures continue to demand fresh elections following the worst civil unrest in decades, reports of simmering discontent among senior religious clerics suggest that some of the pillars of the theocratic state may be facing an unprecedented challenge.

The three men defeated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed June 12 election all questioned the results, and the Guardians Council (GC), an unelected body of 12 clerics and jurists, has been considering some of the more than 600 complaints received.

Despite the turmoil that has gripped the country since the poll, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who indirectly endorsed Ahmadinejad during the election campaign – has refused to consider holding new elections, but did agree to an inquiry by the Guardians Council.

On another day of street demonstrations Saturday – protests that erupted into the worst violence yet, with 13 people reported killed – the GC held an extraordinary meeting, and a spokesman said it had agreed to recount 10 percent of randomly-selected ballot boxes.

The official results, announced by the interior ministry – not an independent electoral body – hours after the polls closed, gave Ahmadinejad 24.5 million votes (62.3 percent), Mir-Hossein Mousavi 13.2 million (33.7 percent), with third- and fourth-placed candidates Mohsen Rezai and Mehdi Karroubi garnering less than two percent each.

The GC invited the three unsuccessful candidates to attend Saturday’s meeting, but only Rezai did, reported Iran Daily, a newspaper produced by the official Irna news agency.

It quoted Rezai as saying that, according to experts who monitored the election, he had actually won up to seven million votes – far more than less than 700,000 votes he was given in the official tally.

Unlike Mousavi and Karroubi, who are viewed as reformists, Rezai is a conservative and former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, so his claims of vote-rigging could be especially damaging to the regime.

Some members of the GC reportedly came out in support of Ahmadinejad during the election campaign, and its planned recount will not satisfy the critics.

“Referring the dispute to a body which has not been impartial regarding the vote, is not a solution,” former president Mohammad Khatami said in a statement, echoing earlier concerns voiced by Mousavi.

A spokesman for Mousavi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, told al-Jazeera television that a fresh election – not a recount – was needed.

Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi waving during a late night press conference after polls closed in Tehran on Friday, June 12, 2009. (AP Photo)

Other establishment figures who suspect election rigging include Hossein Ali Montazeri, a senior ayatollah who fell out with the regime a decade after the Islamic revolution; and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose daughter and several other relatives were briefly detained at the weekend for high-profile involvement in the street protests.

Rafsanjani, also an ayatollah, heads Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a body of 85 religious scholars which among other functions chooses the supreme leader.

The Assembly of Experts is theoretically empowered to dismiss the supreme leader, although such a scenario has up to now been seen as an unlikely one, given Iran’s intricate theocratic system: The assembly’s members are all vetted by the GC, and the GC’s members, in turn, are selected by the supreme leader.

However, the al-Arabiya Arabic television channel reported Sunday that Rafsanjani has been consulting with senior clerics in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom about the possibility of replacing the post of supreme leader with a collective ruling body, as a way to end the current crisis.

The report, citing unnamed sources in Qom, said those involved in the talks include a representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’ite cleric in Iraq who enjoys transnational appeal and influential among Shi’ites.

The Najaf-based Sistani’s view on the role of senior clerics in public life – one of providing counsel – differs from the Velayet al-Faqih (“guardianship of the scholars”) model, which was established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and forms the basis of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A recent RAND Corporation report on Iran touched on the importance of Iraq-based Shi’ite clerics, whose influence, once curbed by Sunni-dominated regimes, is now again increasing.

“Prior to its repression by successive Ba’athist regimes, Najaf’s seminaries had overshadowed those in the Iranian city of Qom through the sophistication of their
scholarship and their larger influence on regional Shi’ites,” the report said.

Sistani, it said, “has long been seen as the most serious challenger to the Supreme Leader’s claim of moral leadership in the Shi’ite world.”

The RAND report noted that Shi’ites elsewhere in the Arab world, too, “look to the seminaries in Najaf, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, instead of the Iranian Supreme Leader, for spiritual and political guidance.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow