Controversial Election Results in Iran

A Silence that Speaks Volumes

Iran's Shia clerics are obviously unhappy with the current situation; their silence is deafening. In the run-up to the election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad obviously made a number of enemies amongst the clergy. Bahman Nirumand has the details

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani (photo: dpa)
As chairman of the Assembly of Experts, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani plays a key role in the conflict surrounding the election results

​​Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei (or Sanei), a former member of the Guardian Council, announced on Sunday that he will not accept a government that is built on lies. As far as he is concerned, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the legitimate president of Iran.

Following the country's election debacle, Sanei announced in the holy city of Qom that he will travel to Tehran and engage in a sit-down strike until such time as the allegations of vote-rigging are cleared up.

Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, an ultra conservative and one of the most important Shia clerics in the country, has warned the state leadership in Tehran of the dangers of a further escalation of the situation.

In the past, it was customary for all grand ayatollahs to congratulate the winner of an election, especially the winner of a presidential election. It was seen as the clergy's legitimation of the election result; in a theocracy, this kind of legitimation is absolutely essential.

The silence of the clerics

Now, however, most ayatollahs are saying nothing. Even the conservatives have not made it clear where they stand. This means that the revolutionary leader, Ali Khamenei, who also lays claim to the title of Supreme leader, stands pretty much alone.

There are two reasons for the leading clerics' reserve in this matter: firstly, Ahmadinejad's government is accused of lying, and secondly, the man who is said to have lost the election is demanding justice. Were an ayatollah to legitimate lies or accept injustice, he would lose his support among the faithful.

In Shia Islam, the status of a leader is determined by the faithful. The more followers an ayatollah has, the more contributions he receives and, consequently, the more students come to him.

The poor and needy rely on his support. Now that the entire country is discussing what is the truth and what is a lie, taking sides is not really an option for the ayatollahs.

The clerics' claim to justice

Ayatollahs in Qom (photo: AP)
Now that the entire country is discussing what is the truth and what is a lie, taking sides is not really an option for the ayatollahs, writes Bahman Nirumand

​​Moreover, justice is one of the key pillars of Shia Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, came to power with the proclaimed intention of bringing justice to all. The degree to which an Iranian statesman, even the revolutionary leader, remains true to this principle is a measure of his legitimacy.

Ayatollah Khamenei declared that the election result was correct and congratulated Ahmadinejad on his victory before the Guardian Council announced the election result. Without this announcement, the result is not officially valid.

If it were to come to light that the elections had been rigged and that Mousavi was wrongly declared the loser, this would, objectively speaking, negate the legitimacy of the revolutionary leader and be a reason to remove him from office.

This decision, however, lies in the hands of the Assembly of Experts, the council of clerics that is elected directly by the people. The chairman of this assembly is the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful men in the power structure of this theocracy.

Rafsanjani's protests

Rafsanjani, who is highly respected by the grand ayatollahs, also considers himself to have been treated unjustly during the election campaign. During a television debate with his rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad said that Rafsanjani was corrupt and accused him of having enriched himself and those close to him.

Rafsanjani wrote a letter to the revolutionary leader, complaining about these remarks and calling on him to rebuke the president for his words. Khamenei has not yet answered this letter, which was made public.

The silence of the majority of the country's clerics now means that instead of relying on the support of the clergy, Khamenei is having to rely on military forces, paramilitary groups, and secret services to secure his grip on power.

This is a highly precarious situation for a revolutionary leader to be in. Unlike his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, Khamenei has never really been fully accepted as religious leader by Iran's high-ranking clergy.

As far as the grand ayatollahs are concerned, his meagre theological background made him a second-rate choice. If he does not manage to get at least a few ayatollahs on his side, the air around him could soon start to get very thin.

Bahman Nirumand

© Tageszeitung / 2009

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