Cracks Widen Within Iran’s Islamic Establishment

By Patrick Goodenough | July 21, 2009 | 4:47 AM EDT

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a meeting in Tehran on Monday, July 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader)

( – In a provocative challenge to the theocracy that rules Iran, a former president has called for a referendum on the government’s legitimacy after the disputed June 12 election. The call came on the heels of a sermon by another ex-president who sharply criticized the leadership for its handling of the election crisis.
Both interventions – one from a prominent reformist figure, the other from a conservative cleric who heads two of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic system – directly confront supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who endorsed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election despite accusations that the vote was rigged.
While the street protests sparked by the Ahmadinejad’s ostensible victory over opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi have largely ebbed as a result of heavy-handed state action and threats, the conflict within the establishment shows no signs of ending.
The referendum call by Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997-2005, offers a new rallying point for Mousavi supporters dispirited by the government crackdown. It was quickly endorsed by an influential reformist political organization, the Association of Combatant Clerics
“The only way out of the current situation is to hold a referendum,” the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) quoted Khatami as saying. “If the majority of people accept the situation, we will accept it as well.”
Khatami suggested that a referendum be supervised by the Expediency Council, an administrative body tasked to advise the supreme leader and to mediate in any disagreements between parliament and the Guardians Council, the religious-judicial body that oversees elections.
The Expediency Council is chaired by Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami’s predecessor as president of Iran from 1989-1997. A powerful and sometimes controversial figure, Rafsanjani has also come out in support of the opposition camp, and in a sermon broadcast live on Friday he said the government had lost the trust of millions of Iranians.
In his first public speech since the election, Rafsanjani said the Islamic Republic faced a crisis and called for those detained during the post-election protests to be released.
Rafsanjani also chairs a top body of scholars called the Assembly of Experts, whose functions including appointing and supervising the supreme leader.
‘Death to Russia’
His address at Tehran University sparked fresh protests on nearby streets by thousands of opposition supporters, the biggest in several weeks.
Invited by a Friday prayer leader to repeat the standard chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” the protestors instead chanted “Death to Russia.”
In video clips posted on the Internet over the weekend, protestors can be heard responding to the call of “Marg bar Amreeka” with the response, “Marg bar Russiya.”
Russia’s Gazeta news site said the chants were evidently a reaction to Moscow’s “unconditionally supporting” Ahmadinejad during the election dispute.
(Ahmadinejad visited Russia less than a week after the election, holding talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Yekaterinburg even as protests continued on the streets of Tehran. “We welcome him on Russian soil and see it as symbolic that he made his first visit to Russia,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov told journalists at the time, calling Iran’s election an “internal affair.”)
During Friday’s protests around Tehran University, police and militiamen used tear gas and batons to disperse the demonstrators. The Mehr news agency said about 40 arrests were made after protestors defied warnings to leave.
Facing vocal challenges to his authority from Mousavi, Khatami and Rafsanjani, Khamenei warned during a televised meeting with government officials on Monday that Iran’s “elite” should be cautious, and avoid any action that could play into the hands of Iran’s enemies.
“Anyone, no matter their rank or title, will be detested by the people if they lead our society towards insecurity,” Khamenei said, according to a report by the IRIB state broadcaster.
“The enemies of the Iranian people, via their media, are giving instructions to the troublemakers to cause disorder, destruction and violence, while at the same insisting they are not interfering in Iranian internal affairs,” he said.
Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other regime figures have throughout the crisis, which cost at least 20 lives, sought to blame Western nations for the turmoil.
“During the whole election process, certain foreign countries attempted to push the country to the brink of civil war,” Iran Daily quoted Ahmadinejad as telling supporters during a visit to the northeastern city of Mashhad late last week.
After the election, police detained nine Iranian employees of the British Embassy in Tehran, accused of instigating the most serious unrest the country has seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The arrests sparked a diplomatic row, and the last of the nine was released on bail on Sunday.
Mousavi on Monday again rejected the attempt to blame outsiders.
“Who believes that [protesting opposition supporters] would conspire with foreigners and sell the interests of their own country?” he said during a meeting with relatives of some of those detained after the election. “Has our country become so mean and degraded that you attribute the huge protest movement of the nation to foreigners? Isn’t this an insult to our nation?”
Ahmadinejad is due to be sworn in for a second term in early August.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow