x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Conflict between republican and Islamic values intensifies

Critics say the balance of power in Iran has been shifted in favour of non-secular interests.

The post-election crisis gripping Iran has sharpened a long-running debate that cuts to the heart of the way the country has been ruled for three decades. Is the Islamic republic primarily Islamic or a republic: is God's law or man's paramount? In Iran this is not an esoteric subject discussed by only politicians, clerics and intellectuals. As soon as the election results emerged handing a suspicious landslide victory to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, furious messages began circulating on Facebook. One young woman wrote: "They are changing Iran from an 'Islamic Republic' to 'Islamic" by their actions. This is the death of democracy in Iran." In a referendum after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranians overwhelmingly approved the creation of an Islamic republic to replace the western-backed monarchy. Later that year, they backed a new constitution for a hybrid political system combining elements of democracy with an unelected religious leadership. Popular sovereignty is subordinate to the clerical sphere, but both are ideally meant to coexist and enhance each other. The country's ultimate authority is the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As head of government, the elected president ranks second in the hierarchy of power. But clerical authority has relied on elections for the presidency and parliament to endorse popular legitimacy for the system as a whole.

That authority is now being challenged as never before because millions feel robbed by the election that returned Mr Ahmadinejad to the presidency with the staunch support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is meant to be impartial. Iran's cautious clerical class has for the most part remained silent on the worst internal conflict for 30 years. Those who have spoken out are liberals who have taken the people's side. "No one in their right mind can believe" the official results, declared Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. He was once the officially designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the revolution, but is now a dissident cleric who effectively lives under house arrest in the holy city of Qom. "A government not respecting [the] people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy," Grand Ayatollah Montazeri added. Two other senior ayatollahs issued similar statements.

Behind the scenes, the supreme leader is facing a more significant challenge from politician-clerics in the ruling elite who support Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom millions of Iranians believe was the rightful winner of the June 12 elections. They are Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative and one of Iran's most influential clerics, and Mohammad Khatami, a popular reformist; both are former presidents. Mr Rafsanjani has kept a low profile in the post-election meltdown. Many believe he is working quietly with other powerful clerics troubled by the supreme leader's handling of the crisis. One suggestion is that he is in Qom warning the religious establishment that their influence is about to be overshadowed by the military, which the supreme leader and his president protégé have elevated to positions of political and economic power, ensuring their loyalty. Ayatollah Khamenei's authority has not rested on the religious credentials he is supposed to have as a supreme leader. When Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei was a middle-ranking cleric, a hojatolislam, who was elevated overnight to the rank he now holds. Mr Rafsanjani, now his most potent challenger, facilitated his ascension. "The election dispute may further erode his [Ayatollah Khamenei's] religious and political authority, especially among the traditional clergy, leaving him even more dependent on the Revolutionary Guard," said Ali Nader, an Iran analyst with the Rand Corp.

But the regime must know that if the Revolutionary Guard is called on to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations, escalating bloodshed will force the most senior conservative clerics in Qom to take a stand against the government. This would significantly enhance popular support for the opposition and make it virtually impossible for the regime to claim it is sanctioned by God. Those who oppose the clergy's involvement in politics fear that by becoming embroiled in the temporal world of politics, the clergy and Islam itself could be tarnished by the government's mistakes and shortcomings. Those fears are now being realised. Ayatollah Khamenei's stature has received an astonishing blow. There have been unprecedented chants of "Death to Khamenei!" at demonstrations protesting against the outcome of the election. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae