In Iran, at least every four years the people in power find a reason to confront each other. Interestingly even when this fight is among a very small circle, it’s brutal and to the death!
This time the focus is not over kicking out rivals from the presidential ring as conservatives have done to the reformists, but about eliminating the opponent. One side of the camp sides with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while the other side is with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On the side of Khamenei is a clan of clergy (Akhonds) who hold key positions for years with influence over the military and economy thanks to their association with the Supreme Leader.
Ahmadinejad who has posed as a live threat to this theocracy and these associated groups is wrestling Khamenei for his own political life. These days anything Ahmadinejad says or does can only be seen and interpreted as a call “against the Supreme Leader.”
Beehive of politics
At the same time, Ahmadinejad has also not bothered to act controversially or needle his opponents. With a stick in his hand, he likes to enter the beehive of political discourse ready to take on his opponents. But who are his opponents?
They are individuals who, for years and decades, have acted as the only people capable of representing the Hidden Imam—Imam Mahdi—and in his absence. Like Christians awaiting the return of Jesus Christ, Shias believe that the arrival of Imam Mahdi signals the end of time (hence he goes by the moniker Imam Zaman or the Master of Time). Thus, a connection to the Hidden Imam carries great deal of moral authority in Iran.
Having never worked in their lives until the Iranian revolution where the late Ayatollah Khomeini elevated their social standing and brought them to the capital, these clergy slowly became engaged in office work.
In need of a religious justification for their newly established influence in political and economic arenas, these religious men relied on the Hidden Imam and by extension the Supreme Leader (who represents the Hidden Imam in his absence) to provide legitimacy to their political power.
Leadership: who survives?
Iran’s religious capital Qom, or more precisely the masterminding ayatollahs in Qom, began hating Ahmadinejad when he challenged their authority over their connection with Imam Mahdi. In what was viewed as a deliberate slight to Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ahmadinejad claimed to receive hints from Imam Mahdi directly.
Ahmadinejad has been quoted as saying that the country (Iran) is run by the master (Hidden Imam) and that “he is present in society.” Such a view denies the need for having a Supreme Leader, therefore challenging this theocratic arrangement.
Qom, which represents several hardcore hardliner Ayatollahs, such as Ahmad Khatami and Mohammad Yazadi, are worried about losing this exclusive right of connection and representation with the Hidden Imam. Without Khamenei in power, the rest of the clergy might as well pack their bags and return to the seminary in Qom or Najaf, Iraq.
So it seems like the competition is not exactly over who might hold the presidential office soon next summer—it’s about who survives and remains in the political picture.
It looks as though the main competition is over the Hidden Imam’s legacy and the authority of the Iranian clergy who for hundreds of years claimed to represent him and cashed this claim at large.
With less than four months left to the election, both sides are firing any bullets they have irrespective of the consequences. Qom, which has enjoyed the upper hand because of its affiliation with the Supreme Leader, didn’t even hesitate to call Ahmadinejad an apostate! Though not using this word exactly, Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Qaraati said on Saturday, “Ahmadinejad has exited from the rail of God’s book [Quran] and Ahl Bait [Shiisim].”
Qaraati’s took this hard action when Ahmadinejad said that Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez would return with Jesus Christ and the complete human (Imam Mahdi) to help them bring peace and justice.
Surely Ahmadinejad, an engineer with a Ph.D. and who knows mathematics so well, could have calculated his aim before making such a claim publicly. But he is in war with Qom and the entire religious hierarchy and his statements are aimed at challenging them.
On the other hand, assuming Ahmadinejad’s statement about Chavez’s implied sainthood as a eulogy given by a grieving friend, why would Qom respond so harshly with so many Ayatollahs issuing statements challenging the president’s religious knowledge and authority in Shi’ism? Is Imam Mehdi exclusively in their department?
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard