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Cracks between ‘pharaoh’ Khamenei and clerics starting to show


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Arab News, 12 February 2018 - Several Farsi news outlets last week focused on the arrest of the son of a famous Shiite cleric in the city of Qom. Hussein Al-Shirazi, the son of Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Al-Shirazi, was arrested for pointing out that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is similar to a “pharaoh.” He also compared the governance of the Iranian regime to that of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Intriguingly, comparing governments or political figures to pharaohs has been mostly used as an analogy by Khamenei himself. Most recently, he called the United States and Israel “today’s pharaohs.”
The term pharaoh in the Persian language is equated with tyranny, dictatorship and injustice. Hussein Al-Shirazi also criticized the regime for human rights violations, such as oppressing and mistreating dissidents, protesters and political prisoners, as well as ruling the nation through a religious dictatorship. The well-known Shiite cleric stated: “The (regime’s) leaders justify the death or injuries of millions of people by stating that it was for the sake of ‘holy defense.’ This nation has been wasted and ruined; it has moved 50 years backwards when it comes to the economy and standard of living; millions of people have become paralyzed; and then the regime states that their achievements were linked to the holy defense.”
There exists a misconception in viewing Iran’s clerical establishment and leadership as monolithic, but Hussein Al-Shirazi’s statements highlight the deep divisions within the leadership.
Many high-level Iranian clerics question the underlying legitimacy of the Iranian regime’s rule. One of the fundamental differences is linked to the concept of “Velayat-e Faqih” (the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), which was introduced into Shiite theology by Khomeini and Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Montazeri’s view of Velayat-e Faqih held that a qualified Islamist Jurist should only play the role of an advisor, not an executive role in the government. However, Khomeini took the concept to a different level, directly entering the Shiite clerics into political affairs and giving the Faqih (the representative of the Hidden Imam, Al-Mahdi) custodianship over people. This revolutionary concept continues to be criticized by other powerful Shiite clerics, who believe that religion should remain separate from political affairs until the return of Imam Al-Mahdi.

The Iranian regime has always strongly attempted to depict its clerical establishment and leadership as a united front with one voice and one opinion, but the arrest of Al-Shirazi reveals that divisions have reached an unprecedented level.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Another issue is that, even among some of those clergies who believe that a Shiite Islamist Jurist must rule the nation, Khamenei is viewed as unqualified to be Iran’s supreme leader. This is partially due to the fact that Khamenei was not a grand marja (high-level religious authority) or an ayatollah when he succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini. Montazeri, who was supposed to be Khomeini’s successor, was replaced with Khamenei at the last moment due to the former’s criticism of the establishment.
Furthermore, some clerics question the foreign policy of the regime and its hemorrhaging of billions of dollars to keep dictators such as Bashar Assad, and proxies such as Hezbollah, in power. They believe that the government should focus on the nation’s desperate economic needs.
It is also worth noting that the arrest of Hussein Al-Shirazi shows that the regime is sending a robust message to the ordinary people and Qom’s clerics that opposition and criticism will not be tolerated, no matter the background of the individual concerned. The Iranian regime has previously detained and arrested high-level officials, such as Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the daughter of the late ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic.
For almost four decades, the Iranian regime has strongly attempted to depict its clerical establishment and leadership as a united front with one voice and one opinion. It has tried to show that the clerical establishment believes in the regime’s revolutionary principles, the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih and the current system of governance. Nevertheless, the latest developments reveal that the division between Iran’s clerics has reached an unprecedented level. This could pose a grave threat to the hold on power of the Iranian regime and bring about fundamental changes within it.

 • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh


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