While Iranians are still debating who won the recent presidential election, they are agreed on who the losers were.
To many Iranians, the ultimate losers in the current crisis are the Shi’ite clergy who appear confused, divided and increasingly isolated.
Iranians who watch their television or read their newspapers these days cannot help noticing that while the mullahs are fading a new elite, consisting of the military, is taking their place.
This week, for example, several generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC) dominated the state-owned media with a series of openly political speeches and interviews. IRGC Commander-in-Chief Major-General Muhammad Ali Jaafari, put it in a clear way. “ There is a new situation in which the IRGC controls the country and defends the revolution,” he said. “ The consequences of this new situation must be taken into account in every field.”
Major-General Hassan Firuzabadi, Chief of the Staff of Armed Forces, went even further by offering what sounded like a Latin American coup leader’s pronuciamento.
Mullahs were introduced to Iran with the foundation of the Safavid Dynasty and the forcible conversion of the country to duodecimal Shi’ism in the 16th century. (The Safavid shahs imported the first mullahs from Mesopotamia, India, and Lebanon).
The mullahs adopted a clever stratagem.
They remained close to the rulers without being identified with them. While receiving generous stipends from the government, the mullahs also collected funds from ordinary people, notably bazaar merchants.
By controlling vast endowments, they run a parallel economy that employed and benefited large segments of society.
Their principal asset, however, was their unity.
No mullah would fight another in public. In a society where conflict was part of the social grammar at all levels, this was unique. The king would kill his brothers and blind his sons. Rich merchants would pay hired assassins to remove rivals. Tribal chiefs fought one another all the time. Only the mullahs appeared blessed by harmony.
Over the centuries, the mullahs managed to cultivate the myth that they represented the collective conscience of society and were the nation’s last refuge at times of crisis.
From the 18th century they played a key role in major events of Iranian history.
The movement known as the Tobacco Boycott in early 20th century demonstrated the power of the mullahs to mobilise the people across social classes.
The constitutional revolution of 1905-06 succeeded, in part, thanks to support from most mullahs. Mullahs played a leading role in the oil nationalisation movement of 1950-51 and, after 1962, in opposing the reforms introduced by the Shah. In the revolution of 1978-79, the mullahs provided the leadership and the muscle needed for victory.
In 1979-1980, brief attempts by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and President Abol-Hassan Banisadr to send the mullahs back to the mosques failed.
By 1981, having purged themselves of dissidents, the mullahs were sole rulers of Iran.
In hindsight what had looked like an historic victory now looks like a Faustian deal which may spell the end of the Shi’îte clergy’s influence as known in Iran for 500 years.
Over the past 30 years the clergy has lost its position as “ the last resort” and become the front line in the struggle for political power.
The late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini dealt the first blow to the clergy’s unity by imposing his weird version of “Walayat Faqih” (Guardianship of the Cleric). The fact that not a single prominent ayatollah endorsed Khomeini’s version, prevented the concept from acquiring the theological authority needed to cover its political nakedness.
By fighting for political power, the mullahs became politicians, losing the aura of sanctity they had cultivated over centuries.
The decline of the mullahs has coincided with the rise of the military-security elite and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its champion.
In 2005, in a bizarre presidential election, Ahmadinejad decisively defeated Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent mullah whose supporters refer to him as “ayatollah”. That added a new crack to the sanctity of the mullahs: a relatively unknown functionary had crushed one of the key figures of the clergy.
Ahmadinejad became the first non-mullah to win the Iranian presidency since 1981.
Under Ahmadinejad, the process of marginalizing the mullahs intensified. Backed by the military-security elite, Ahmadinejad reduced the number of mullahs in the Council of Ministers from an all-time high of 18 to just one. Of special significance was the loss by the mullahs of such key ministries as the Interior and Justice that they had occupied for almost a quarter of a century. The share of mullahs in the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s fake parliament, fell from 60 per cent two decades ago to nine per cent. Mullahs who held most of the plum jobs as governors of provinces, ambassadors and chairmen of state-controlled corporations have been flushed out in favour of military and security apparatchiki linked to the IRGC.
Last June’s presidential election confirmed the mullahs’ decline.
For the first time in 29 years, there was only one mullah, Mehdi Karrubi, among the four candidates approved by the authorities. (In the 1990s three out of four top candidates for the presidency were mullahs).
To drive the nail in, the results of the June election were so arranged to complete the humiliation of the sole mullah-candidate. Although an ayatollah and a former two-term Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Karrubi was credited with less than one per cent of the vote, and declared loser even in his own native town.
Over the past four years, Ahmadinejad has done much to discredit the mullahs. Some, like Rafsanjnai and former Majlis Speaker Nateq Nuri, he has accused of corruption. Others, like former President Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, he has accused of involvement in “ plots by foreign enemies” to secularise the regime.
More significantly, perhaps, Ahmadinejad has prepared a plan to take into public ownership a large number of businesses seized by the mullahs in the confusion that followed the fall of the Shah.
Experts in Tehran claim that this will represent the largest transfer of wealth from one social group to another in Iran’s contemporary history. Hundreds of wealthy mullahs may suddenly find themselves divested of the economic power they have accumulated over decades.
The clergy is divided over the position to adopt vis-à-vis Ahmadinejad.
A handful of political mullahs, among them Ali Khanemehi, the “Supreme Guide”, have publicly endorsed his re-election. A few others have denounced his re-election as a fraud and declared his new administration “illegitimate”.
Under the Khomeinist ideology, Khamenehi, supposed to represent Divine Power on Earth, should have closed the debate with his forceful endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Official propaganda called his intervention “fasl el-khatab”, a theological term meaning “ end of the discussion.”
However, his sermon failed to close the debate, let alone heal the rift. It provoked anger among some, yawns among others and laughs among many more. Iranians have moved beyond such shenanigans.
Divided among themselves and fighting over money and power, the clergy is no longer in a position to advise the “ummah” to bury the hatchet in the interest of a discredited ideology.
Amir Taheri’s new book “ The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London.