Iranian Clerical Opposition Forming

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The uprising in Iran can only succeed if there are fundamental shifts within the clerical power structure that runs the country. There are now signs that an opposition group is crystallizing within the religious leadership.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformist former president, has traveled to the city of Qom, the religious center of the country, to try to rally clerics to oppose Ahmadinejad and support the opposition. Rafsanjani is chairman of the 86-member Assembly of Experts which appoints and monitors the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who thus far backs Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, an influential voice for liberal policies who has previously openly criticized Ahmadinejad, has issued a statement saying that the legitimacy of the regime is at stake, and the issues being raised by the crisis must be dealt with. He also advised “all the officials, as well as the military and security forces, to uphold their religion and not sell their souls; they must understand that the term ‘officials are excused [because they are only doing their duty]’ would not be accepted by the Almighty God on the Day of Judgment.” This is clearly religious guidance against a propsective military crackdown.

Hardliners in the regime are responding in a variety of ways to try to squelch the opposition movement. Something akin to martial law will reportedly begin Tuesday night. Phone banks have been set up that call people and tell tem they have been seen engaging in opposition activity and threatening them not to leave their homes. In other cases thugs break down doors to deliver the message personally.

The regime has arrested some key opposition figures. They picked up Mohammad-Ali Abtahi,  a clericand top advisor to reformist cleric and politician Mehdi Karroubi. Abtahi is former chief of staff to President Seyed Mohammad Khatami. Also under arrest is Saeed Hajaria, a leading and respected reformist intellectual.

Meanwhile Ahmadinejad has left the country, attending the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Ahmadinejad is trying to give the impression of business as usual. But back home it is anything but. If we begin to see more clerics moving towards the opposition block it would signal difficulties for Khameini. But the regime has powerful tools at its disposal to squelch this movement, and despite the violence we have seen to date the gloves are not yet off.

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About the Author

James S. Robbins

James S. Robbins, Ph.D., former Senior Editorial Writer for Foreign Affairs, was formerly professor of international relations at the National Defense University, associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Robbins is author of the recently released "This Time ...

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