x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Clerics join chorus of dissent

Influential religious leaders question the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

A prominent association of religious leaders in Qom has questioned the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.
A prominent association of religious leaders in Qom has questioned the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Mounting opposition from Iranian clerics to the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election is torpedoing the regime's attempts to blame his purportedly defeated rivals and western powers, in particular Britain, for the Islamic republic's worst crisis in its 30-year history. A prominent association of religious leaders in Qom, Iran's clerical nerve centre, said the new government would be "illegitimate" and condemned the force used to crush huge pro-democracy demonstrations after the June 12 elections. The statement by the Assembly of Qom Seminary Teachers and Researchers directly challenges the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ordered Iranians to accept his president's "divine" victory or face the consequences. The statement followed an attack on the government by a reformist cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei. "I hope that the path of the Iranian people to continue their legal protest could be open," he said in a website message, which also urged the authorities not to commit the "great sin" of violating people's rights. Ayatollah Khamenei met defiance from another quarter yesterday when the son of an iconic revolutionary ayatollah urged the Iranian parliament to dismiss Mr Ahmadinejad from his post. "People expect their representatives to represent them and not to defend [the] authorities by any means," said Ali Reza Beheshti, a close ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who many Iranians believe was the rightful winner of the election. Mr Beheshti, 47, is the younger son of Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, one of the main leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a top judge who was killed in a bomb attack in 1981. While able to enforce calm on the streets with force, the regime has failed to silence dissent even though it has arrested hundreds of political activists and opinion-makers. "Once the attempt to steal the elections didn't go as planned, Ahmadinejad opted for the politics of elimination," said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council. "That too will fail, I believe." Both of Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist rivals in the elections, braving threats of arrest and prosecution, maintained their outspoken criticism of what they call an "illegitimate" election. Mr Mousavi released his most detailed account yet of alleged "fraud and irregularities" in the elections. He accused the interior ministry, which organised the election, of being strongly biased towards Mr Ahmadinejad and asked why it had printed 14 million more ballots than the total registered electorate of 46 million. Iranian officials claim the poll was the "healthiest" in 30 years and its real winners were the 40m Iranians who voted. They cast those who cried foul as subversives seeking a "velvet revolution" on behalf of hostile western powers. Ayatollah Khamenei has singled out Britain as the "most treacherous" of Iran's enemies. Tensions with Britain flared after the arrest of nine locally employed staff at the British Embassy in Tehran on June 28. A lawyer for the last of them still held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison expressed optimism yesterday that Hossein Rassam, a 44-year-old political analyst at the embassy, would be freed in the coming days. The authorities have not yet lodged a formal complaint against Mr Rassam, his lawyer said. There were earlier reports that he had been charged with "acting against national security". Meanwhile, Tehran said it had released a British-Greek journalist, ­Iason Athanasiadis, who was working for The Washington Times and has written for The National, who was arrested during the post-election unrest two weeks ago. Some Iranian hardliners appeared committed to keeping tensions with Britain inflamed. A military commander declared that preparations have been made to "retake" a sprawling British diplomatic compound in an upmarket Tehran suburb. The Gulhak Gardens is the summer residency for British diplomats and home to the British Council. It is situated several kilometres north of the main British Embassy, which is in the centre of the capital. "Effective measures have been taken to materialise the legitimate right of the Iranian nation and retake the compound," said Brig Gen Mir-Faisal Baqerzade. He appeared to suggest he was pursuing legal means to seize the compound rather than plotting a militant-style takeover like that of the US Embassy in 1979. Brig Gen Baqerzade has long led an unsuccessful attempt to "emancipate" the Gulhak Gardens, which he claims Britain has "illegally ­occupied" for nearly 200 years without paying rent. London insists its ownership of Gulhak is legally ­watertight. Attempting to prevent the public receiving any narrative of the post-­election crisis other than the ­official one, Iran's judiciary yesterday called for the prosecution of people working for "anti-regime" satellite television channels and websites. Local news agencies said offenders could be punished with up to 10 years in jail. For the first time in Iran, foreign-based television stations, particularly BBC's Persian TV, blogs and websites such as Facebook and Twitter, played a major role in providing news and comment about the election. As well as clamping down on the media and internet, the regime is intensifying its campaign to intimidate Mr Mousavi. He was accused on Saturday of being a US agent by a senior aide of Ayatollah Khamenei. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline Kayhan daily newspaper, called for Mr Mousavi to be tried in court "for horrible crimes and treason" together with his most prominent supporter, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former ­president. Kayhan again took aim at Mr Mousavi and his supporters yesterday, claiming their defiant stance showed "that they do not accept the system". The accusation is strongly denied by Mr Mousavi and another defeated presidential candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, a cleric and former speaker of parliament. They argue that they have been forced to take opposition roles to defend and preserve the Islamic republic which they helped found. In his report on the election, Mr Mousavi accused the president of doling out cash to win the votes of working-class Iranians and of abusing the state machinery during the campaign. The report, posted on his website, also charged that the 12-man Guardian Council, the official electoral watchdog that upheld Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election last week after a limited recount, of being biased towards the president. The last criticism was also levelled by the influential Assembly of Qom Seminary Teachers and Researchers, which said some of the council's members "have lost their impartial image in the eyes of the public". A statement issued by the clerics demanded: "How can one accept the legitimacy of the election just because the Guardian Council says so? Can one say that the government born out of these infringements is a legitimate one?" Iran's cautious clerical class had for the most part remained silent after the election. But pro-Mousavi dissent is now mounting in Qom. From the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution many clerics had quietly opposed the clergy's involvement in politics, fearing that worldly power could corrupt and mistakes by the government could tarnish the clerical class as a whole. Those fears were reflected in an earlier statement by the Assembly of Qom Seminary Teachers and Researchers last week: "If people find the system opposed to them, they will consider clerics opposed to them, too." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae