Ever since the fraudulent Presidential Elections in Iran in June 2009, the role of Shiite clerics from Qom and even Iraq in standing up to the coup government of Ahmadinejad and its backers has been unprecedented throughout the 30 year history of the Islamic Republic to say the least.
Indeed the positions held by senior clerics across the country have been pivotal to the success of the green movement. Following the tragic events that followed the June 12 election when the eyes of the nation were upon religious elders, they were not let down as cleric after cleric not only defied the illegitimate government of Ahmadinejad, but also questioned the legitimacy of the “Supreme Leader” that could not wait to bestow his blessing upon the coup government by confirming the election results before an investigation was even carried out.
The role of senior clerics following the elections and its aftermath became quickly apparent as the election results were announced. Unlike all other elections when it was custom for the Marja (or religious references) to congratulate the elected president after his election, events took a different turn in the summer of 2009 as only one Marja congratulated Ahmadinejad’s re-election. The same cleric later expressed regret for having done so, stating that he was tricked by individuals close to government into believing that other clerics had also congratulated Ahmadinejad. This was very humiliating for a government desperately seeking legitimacy, as for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic the religious establishment did not consider the elections as sound. This was a direct challenge to the authority of the “Supreme Leader” who had wasted no time in showing his support for the coup President.
Acknowledging the importance of this embarrassing refusal to recognise Ahmadinejad’s presidency and in a desperate attempt the backers of the coup quickly decided to forge statements of senior clerics regarding their messages of support for the coup government. One such cleric is Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi who denounced this act and denied ever having congratulated Ahadinejad’s “re-election.”
Many senior clerics such as Grand Ayatollahs Sanei and Montazeri also criticised the government’s violent crackdown on the people following the elections and attempted to reject any connection between the crimes committed after the elections and the teachings of Islam.
On numerous occasions, various clerics such as Ayatollah Taheri Esfehani denounced Ahmadinejad’s government as “illegitimate,” and called on the people to put further pressure on the state in order to force it into changing its ways.
Few can forget the clerics’ condemnation of the arrest and show trials of reformist figures and their show of support to their families which frustrated the government and its security apparatus to the extent that they had to resort to such dirty tactics as taking the families of the defying clerics as hostage. Shiite clerics also refused to remain silent when news of torture and rape in the prisons of the Islamic Republic surfaced after the elections.
However the criticisms did not stop there, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s religious credentials have also been questioned by other senior clerics in Qom. This was most apparent when the time came for determining the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. With the exception of one cleric, every single Marja disagreed with Ayatollah Khamenei’s declaration in determining the end of Ramadan.
But opposition to the status quo was not just from Iran, but also from neighbouring Iraq from the likes of Grand Ayatollah Sistani who expressed his discontent towards events in Iran through his official representative in Iran.
Discontent with the leader and his performance finally found its way into the Assembly of Experts which has the power to remove the leader from his position should its members decide that the leader is not fit to govern the affairs of the country. For the first time since the revolution in 1979, open and signed letters questioning the legitimacy of the leader were circulating. This was unprecedented in Iran.
Following the June 12 elections in Iran, the clerical establishment was at a crossroads of Iranian history. It had to choose between the people on the one hand and the illegitimate president and his new best friend the “Supreme Leader” on the other. In the end it chose to be on the side of the nation, despite the severe consequences that followed.
What started out as a crisis of mismanagement has turned into a crisis of legitimacy. Ahmadinejad and his backers face opposition from unified Iranians from across the political spectrum. For their part, the religious clerics who have until now sided with the people of Iran promise to remain a thorn in the eye of whoever goes against the true will of the Iranian people.