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Iran in Crisis
Iranian republic splintering?
Senior clerics fear clashes might undermine entire religious and political system.
Last Modified: 23 Jun 2009 11:25 GMT

The sheer size of the opposition may convince some security forces not to get involved [Reuters]

Saturday June 20, a day after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, made it clear there was no vote-rigging in the presidential election and that protests must stop, thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran in defiance of his demand.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition presidential candidate, issued a statement stressing that peaceful protests would continue, the election results had to be cancelled and that he would not back down.

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Demonstrations in Tehran and some other major cities which started off peacefully, turned violent. According to state media, 19 people have been killed with hundreds injured after supporters of Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another defeated candidate, were attacked by members of the Basij militia and plainclothed and uniformed security forces using batons and live rounds.

Similar instances of violence were reported to have led to deaths and injuries in some other major cities in Iran.

In his Friday prayer sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei had warned supporters of the opposition candidates to halt their protests otherwise they would face "the consequences" - a veiled reference to using force in dealing with the protesters who dared to defy his demand.

Increasing violence and the rising causalities have caused a stir even among the Iranian conservative establishment. 

There are some powerful elements among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - the all-powerful army created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 - who are sympathetic to reformists including Mousavi.

Moreover, the sheer size of the opposition and the bloodshed on the streets of Tehran may convince some senior commanders that they do not want to be involved in the continuing bloodshed in any way.

They well remember how the Shah's powerful army collapsed because of the disobedience of the soldiers who refused to follow the "shoot to kill" orders.

The Basij

The other point which must be considered is the Basij militia, which is affiliated to IRCG and has been accused by Mousavi supporters of being involved in the harassment, beating and killing of protesters.

It is estimated that about 350,000 basijis receive regular military and intelligence-gathering training by the IRCG and are on their official payroll.

Traditionally, Basij militia serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as intelligence-gathering, law enforcement, emergency management, the providing of social services, organising of public religious ceremonies, policing morals and the suppression of dissident gatherings.

However, the Basij has its roots with ordinary Iranian people and this makes members vulnerable to public sentiments. Members' brothers or sisters or other relatives may be among the protesters who fill the streets.

Consequently the continuation of bloodshed and increasing popularity of the opposition can potentially split them.

This can pose a serious threat to the authority of the Islamic Republic.

Clerical split?

A more serious challenge comes from some senior clerics in Qom, the seat of Shia Islamic theology and jurisprudence where all major seminaries have been traditionally located.

Senior ayatollahs, some of whom are members of the Assembly of Experts – a clerical body charged with the selection of the Iranian supreme leader and supervising his performance – have expressed serious concern, publicly and privately, about the current events.

A security split could pose a serious threat to the government's authority [Reuters]

Mousavi has written an open letter to all senior ayatollahs in Qom encouraging them to raise their voices over the alleged election irregularities and the way the people's legitimate protests have been dealt with on the streets.

Some senior clerics such as Ayatollah Sane'i, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani and Ayatollah Mousavi Ardabili – the latter being the Islamic Republic's former chief justice - are concerned that the Islamic state is under threat, and if the government authorities do not treat people with dignity, the Islamic system will collapse and the argument of those secular elements in the Iranian society who believe Islam and democracy do not agree, will prevail.

From their point of view, this is the most serious threat the Islamic state has faced since its foundation in 1979.

They believe the long-term interests of the Islamic state must be preferred over the short-term interests of government authorities.

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri - a dissident senior cleric who used to be Ayatollah Khomeini's designated successor in the 1980s and has a strong following in Isfahan and Qom - has vigorously condemned the authorities for their crude behaviour towards the protesters.

He even issued a religious decree declaring the killing of protesters "forbidden".

Also, a communique issued on June 22 by the reformist Society of Combatant Clerics - whose members include Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, and Karroubi - stated: "Senior ayatollahs in Qom are under extreme pressure by government authorities to clarify their position about the supreme leader's speech in last Fridays prayers."

They believe the Iranian authorities are desperate to extract some kind of endorsement of the supreme leader's Friday speech from senior ayatollahs in Qom as they feel the need to gain some legitimacy for his position.

Confidence crisis

So far, they have refused to get involved.  If they continue with their silence, this will mean they do not approve of the position of Ayatollah Khamenei.

According to some unconfirmed reports, Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, has been trying to muster support in recent days to convince senior ayatollahs who are members of the assembly, to meet to discuss the position of the supreme leader.

According to the Iranian constitution, the Assembly of Experts, in theory, has the authority to monitor, impeach, dismiss or appoint a new supreme leader for the Islamic Republic.

These powers have never been used since the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei as leader of the Islamic Republic in 1989 following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Therefore, the convention of this assembly may prove difficult unless enough members can be persuaded to take part.

In addition to this, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, and his prime supporter, Ayatollah Khamenei, are facing a major public confidence crisis.

If they cannot convince the 15 million people who voted for the opposition candidates - according to the Iranian election officials' own figures - that no irregularities have taken place in the election, their credibility will be tarnished forever.


Farzad Agah is an Iranian journalist and analyst living in London.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera policy.

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