Iran's Green Wave
Besides reformists, students, women and businessmen, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are losing their core constituency: the clergy. And given that Iran is a state run by the priestly class, that might prove their undoing. I spoke to a dozen or so clerics, from low- to mid-ranking mullahs to a few who'd attained the rank of hojatolislam, just below ayatollah. There are hundreds of thousands of mullahs in Iran, perhaps a hundred or more who have attained the rank of ayatollah, and just two dozen or so who have developed sufficient reputation and following to be called grand ayatollah. And more and more of them, including many grand ayatollahs, have joined the opposition. "After the television debates with Ahmadinejad, a large number of mullahs who'd been undecided went over to Moussavi," one hojatolislam told me. They were offended, he said, by Ahmadinejad's insulting attitude toward Moussavi--particularly his rhetorical assault on his wife, Rahnavard, whom he accused of falsifying her academic credentials--and his accusations against Rafsanjani and Khatami. "A president should be polite," the cleric told me. "Impolite behavior and ugliness cannot be accepted."
Another cleric, who campaigned for Moussavi in dozens of Iranian towns and cities, said that the majority of mullahs had abandoned the president. "There is a big gap between Ahmadinejad and the clergy," he told me. "Many of the grand ayatollahs are angry, because the president has taken many actions without consulting with them. They are especially unhappy because he has shown an aggressive face of Islam to the world, and Islam is not aggressive. It is a religion of peace." Some three-quarters of the grand ayatollahs in Iran support Moussavi, he told me. Ten of them sent a joint letter to Ahmadinejad, but he ignored them, he said. Several others have openly castigated the regime for its treatment of protesters.
A very well-connected mullah I talked with said that he is a friend and follower of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Back in the late 1980s, Montazeri was the designated successor to Khomeini as Iran's Leader, but hardliners--including Khomeini's son and a circle around Khamenei--ousted him, he told me, because of his liberal views and installed Khamenei. Through this mullah and several other intermediaries, both Moussavi and former president Khatami keep in close contact with Montazeri, as well as with many in the clerical establishment in Qom. In the wake of the election Moussavi and his supporters began organizing what they hoped would be a broad consensus among senior ayatollahs to force Ahmadinejad out or, if it comes to that, to replace Khamenei himself. "Khamenei does not deserve the position that he has," the mullah told me. "He has become a politician, and as a politician he has been corrupted." Describing Khamenei in these terms is extremely unusual, and indicates how much the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei axis has lost its legitimacy. "Khamenei has lost the support of many high-ranking clergy in Qom," declared Ibrahim Yazdi in my interview with him.
Trying to pull together this opposition is Rafsanjani, who so far has stayed behind the scenes but according to numerous reports from Iran is playing a critical role in efforts to counter both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The former president is chair of the Assembly of Experts, a group of more than eighty clerics who have the power, under Iran's Constitution, to appoint or dismiss the Leader. "Rafsanjani has convinced the majority of the Assembly of Experts and several dozen clerics in Qom to support an effort to overturn the election results," a well-connected Iranian told me. According to Yazdi and several other Iranian activists and analysts, at least some of the clergy want to replace Khamenei with a far more moderate, less political council of ayatollahs as a way of restoring consensus in the leadership [see Sarfaraz, "Iran's New Revolutionaries," in last week's issue]. It would in effect be the end of the Khomeini doctrine of velayat-e-faqih ("rule of the jurisprudent"), which is the underpinning of the notion of a Supreme Leader, a concept invented by Khomeini that is far outside mainstream Muslim, and even Shiite, thinking.
The turmoil in Iran surprised not only Iran's leaders but America's. So far, at least, Obama has maintained a measured tone in response to the crisis, condemning the brutality of the crackdown but reaffirming his policy of trying to establish a dialogue with Tehran. He's resisted calls from ideologues and neoconservatives to adopt a harder line, such as tougher sanctions or overt support for regime change. But realistically, the likelihood of a productive US-Iran conversation is sharply lower now, and it may be months before any such discussions take place, if they happen at all. If, as many Iranian insiders told me in Iran, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad saw value in a rapprochement with the United States before June 12, the explosion since then may have convinced them that now is not the time; at the very least, they will enter any such talks with far less willingness to compromise. On the American side, whatever Obama's intent, he is now faced with the enormously greater problem of trying to sell the idea of talks with Iran to US skeptics. "This has certainly influenced the public appetite in the US for the Iranian regime, which makes it very hard for the president to...hold the door open for dialogue," says Tom Pickering, a veteran US diplomat who's been involved in unofficial talks with Iranian counterparts. "On the other hand, he should be taking the view, if he comes under pressure, that you should be talking to your most difficult enemies. Not talking to them punishes you and your strategic interests, not them."
If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei retain their iron grip on power, both Iran and the United States will face inevitable pressure to resume diplomacy. "On both sides, the interest in pursuing a dialogue will emerge intact," says Sir Richard Dalton, who served as Britain's ambassador in Tehran until 2006. The start of such talks might be "slightly delayed" in the aftermath of the crisis, he says, but that's hardly a tragedy.
But Obama will have to ignore calls to set a short deadline on such talks. They could easily drag on, well into the middle of next year and beyond. If talks fail to produce immediate results, the president will have to resist arguments from Israeli hardliners and their US allies to take harsh measures against Iran--including military action. Obama's earlier outreach undercut the hardliners and gave a psychological boost to Iran's reformists and to millions of Iranians who saw Moussavi as a vehicle through which to improve US-Iranian relations. If Obama wants to support the opposition, the best thing he can do is to continue to extend his open hand to Iran.