Intelligence ReportsExclusive ReportsExclusive: Division at the heart of the regime

Exclusive: Division at the heart of the regime


Iran Focus: London, 14 May – For more than 30 years, Iran has been run on Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih, or supreme rule of religious jurisprudence. Khomeini promoted this principle from the outset of the 1979 revolution and for 10 years held the title of Supreme Leader.

Iran Focus

London, 14 May – For more than 30 years, Iran has been run on Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih, or supreme rule of religious jurisprudence. Khomeini promoted this principle from the outset of the 1979 revolution and for 10 years held the title of Supreme Leader. His theory failed him in 1988 when he ended up having to demote his designated successor, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, over Montazeri’s protestations of the vast number of political executions.

Hojjat-ol-Islam Abdullah Nuri, a former interior minister, at the time the Supreme Leader’s representative in the Armed Forces and his close confidant, later wrote in his memoirs about Khomeini’s frustration with the failure of his theory that the vali-e faqih (absolute clerical ruler) should rule.

After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei, a mid-ranking cleric with the title Hojjat-ol-Islam, was appointed Supreme Leader out of the exigencies of the state. None of the major ayatollahs have accepted Khamenei as a marja’e taqlid, or source of emulation. A decade after Khamenei became Supreme Leader, he has been ridiculed by his peers and laymen as the marja’e taqlid for all Shiite Muslims outside Iran. In a desperate attempt to solidify his increasingly vulnerable position, Khamenei gave extraordinary powers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The nationwide protests that followed the presidential election last June effectively brought down the aura of the vali-e faqih as an increasing number of regime officials began to challenge the authority of the Supreme Leader himself.

Mohammad Javad LarijaniMohammad-Javad Larijani, a senior Judiciary official and one of the ruling faction’s top ideologues, wrote in the hard-line daily Ressalat on 20 April 2010: “In my opinion there are two clear factors on which the Monafeqin (the pejorative term used to refer to the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq) and the enemies of Islam are banking: One is [a break in] the relationship between eminent clerics and the government and the other is so-called popular protests which have mostly to do with the economy.”

The holy city of Qom, south of the capital, is home to many senior ayatollahs, most of whom have opposed the policies of the Supreme Leader. For his part, Khamenei has used his iron grip and the Revolutionary Guards to crush dissent. Following the protests that began last June and the fissures that emerged at the top of the regime, many of these senior clerics became more vocal in their opposition, prompting Larijani to warn that the widening rift posed a greater danger than the 10-month-long protests.  
Other regime ideologues have also expressed alarm that the brewing internal rift within the clerical establishment cannot be mended with heavy-handed tactics that were deployed in the streets to contain the nationwide protests. The real crisis has engulfed the pinnacle of the regime, they lament. Among those who are now openly criticising Khamenei are the former Majlis Speaker Hojjat-ol-Islam Mehdi Karroubi; former President and current head of the State Expediency Council, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; former President Mohammad Khatami; former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi; virtually all of Khomeini’s relatives, including his grandsons Hassan and Hossein and granddaughter Zahra Eshraqi, as well as the relatives of Khomeini’s closest associates, such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Hossein Beheshti’s son, Alireza,  currently imprisoned; Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, a member of the Assembly of Experts and Friday prayer leader in the southern city of Shiraz; and the children of Ayatollah Ata’ollah Ashrafi-Isfahani, Khomeini’s personal representative and Friday prayer leader in the western city of Kermanshah; and Ayatollah Ali Qoddousi, the Prosecutor General in the early 1980s.

In addition to some of Khomeini’s most prominent followers who are all now strongly opposed to Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many senior ayatollahs in Qom have joined the ranks of the opposition. There are three distinct groups:

Clerics who do not accept the velayat-e faqih system altogether include:

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorrasani;
Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Sadeq Shirazi; and
Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Sadeq Rowhani.

Top clerics who accept the velayat-e faqih system but oppose Khamenei:

Ayatollah Abdolkarim Moussavi Ardebili, a former chief justice and close confidant of Khomeini;
Ayatollah Youssif Sanei, Prosecutor-General during Khomeini’s era;
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, former Friday prayer leader in Qom and member of the Assembly of Experts;
Ayatollah Reza Ostadi, former member of the constitutional watchdog Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts; and
Clerics who attend sessions of the Council of Scholars in Qom.

Clerics who support Khamenei and Ahmadinejad:

Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi;
Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, former head of the Judiciary and a current member of the Guardian Council;
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council; and
Ayatollah Hossein Nuri Hamedani

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