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The Mullahs and the “sleeping snakes” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Question: What is the cause of Iran’s current political crisis?

Answer: Some “sleeping snakes” are waking up and lurking in the lair to sting the Shi’ite clergy.

The question has been on many lips in Tehran for over a year.

The answer comes from the great survivor of Khomeinist politics Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In an editorial published on his official website this week, Rafsanjani does not name “the sleeping snakes”. But he warns that the aim of these “enemies” of the Islamic revolution is to send the mullahs back to the mosques. “Having insulted and accused clerics involved in politics,” Rafsanjani warns, “the sleeping snakes are now targeting the eminences of Qom itself.”

Well, well!

Theoretically at least, Rafsanjani, a mid-ranking mullah, is one of the most powerful men in the Islamic republic. He is Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, an 89-seat gathering of mullahs whose task is to supervise and, if necessary, dismiss the “Supreme Guide”. Rafsanjani is also the head of the so-called Assembly of the Expediency of the Regime’s Interests. This peculiar beast is supposed to determine the regimes economic, political and military strategies while also refereeing disputes between the legislature and the executive branches of government.

But that is not all.

A successful businessman, Rafsanjani also sits on the boards of more than a dozen major public and private corporations. His network of contacts and partners, built in three decades of presence at the heart of Khomeinist power, is present in every walk of life in the country.

Despite all that, there is a sense in Tehran that Rafsanjani is hanging on by the skin of his teeth. In fact, some analysts believe that, were it not for the reluctance of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei to feed a former ally to the lions, Rafsanjani would be out of office and, possibly, even in prison on charges of corruption.

It is no mystery that Rafsanjani’s phrase, “sleeping snakes”, is a colourful reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a new generation of military commanders that provide his principal support base.

But how true is Rafsanjani’s oblique claim that Ahmadinejad wants to reduce the power of the mullahs?

One theory is that a new generation of technocrats and military and security officers is anxious to win greater space for itself at the expense of the mullahs who have dominated the Khomeinist regime since its inception. This new generation, in its forties and fifties, realises that the original Khomeinist discourse, no longer sellable in Iran, must be replaced by a broader ideology in which nationalism plays as much a role as Islam. To make a new discourse sellable, the new generation needs to reduce the profile of the clergy within the regime.

To some extent, this has already happened. Under Ahmadinejad, the number of mullahs in top positions within the regime has fallen to its all-time low.

Today, the typical top official in Tehran is more likely to be a graduate of MIT or its Iranian equivalent, than of the madrassahs of Qom or Mash’had.

And yet, there is no evidence that Ahmadinejad has actually launched a systematic purge of the mullahs as many within the new generation of technocrats and military and security officers desire.

Paradoxically, it is Rafsanjani and not Ahmadinejad who could best be associated with action against the Shi’ite clergy.

In 1979, he was head of the committee that ordered the execution of Ayatollah Mahmoud Daneshian whose sole “crime” was being a member of parliament under the Shah.

It was also Rafsanjani who engineered the de-frocking of Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari who, in the early stages of the revolution was the only mullah capable of challenging Khomeini’s supremacy.

The same Rafsanjani sat on the ‘Star Chamber’ that ordered the execution of another prominent mullah, Abdul-Karim Hejazi on the ridiculous charge of plotting to kidnap and kill Khomeini.

When it comes to measures of house arrest imposed on a number of prominent mullahs, including Grand Ayatollah Hassan Tabataba’i Qomi and Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani, again we find Rafsanjani’s hand behind the curtain.

Rafsanjani was also instrumental in forcing dozens of mullahs into exile.

Even the most militant mullahs were not immune when, and if, Rafsanjani saw them as an obstacle to his own plans.

One such mullah was Muhammad Mussawi Khoiniha who had led the so-called ‘students’ who took the American diplomats in Tehran hostage for 444 days. In 1988, his star was at its height. A year later, it was almost extinct. He never recovered from his brief duel with Rafsanjani over the latter’s almost insatiable thirst for power and wealth.

The list of mullahs destroyed or pushed to the sidelines by Rafsanjani would read like a who-is-who of the Iranian clergy between 1979 and 2006.

But the most important victim of Rafsanjani’s campaign against mullahs opposed to him was Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri.

In 1979, Khomeini named Montazeri as his heir and successor, describing him as “the light of my eyes and the fruit of my life.”

Six years later, Montazeri had become “an enemy of Islam” and put under house arrest in Qom. The architect of Monatzeri’s fall from favour, Rafsanjani exacted more than his pound of flesh. He organised the execution of Montazeri’s son-in-law and had the grand ayatollah’s sons put in prison.

Rafsanjani’s campaign against Montazeri and his supporters led to the mullahs washing their dirty laundry in public.

Rafsanjani’s memoirs narrate in detail the dastardly deeds of the Mahdi Hashemi gang hiding under Montazeri’s cloak.

On the other hand, Montazeri’s memoirs offer a grim picture of Rafsanjani’s role in the mass execution of political prisoners and the use of child soldiers as cannon fodder in the war against Iraq.

Both men show that when mullahs intervene in politics, when religion is mixed with politics, disaster follows.

In 1990, at the peak of his power, Rafsanjani asserted that no one should “use the cloth for personal advantage at the expense of the community.”

If he was right then, isn’t it possible that he is right today?