A hardline member of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council was facing a backlash on Sunday after criticizing one of the country’s top religious figures for meeting with reformist politicians.
The dispute reflects the diversity of views within Iran’s religious elite and the fact that, well after the 1979 Islamic revolution, some senior Shiite clerics fiercely defend their independence.
The controversy started a fortnight ago when 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Musa Shobairi Zanjani -- considered one of the highest religious authorities and a “marja” (or “source of emulation”) for huge numbers of Shiite Muslims -- met with ex-president Mohammad Khatami and other members of the reformist camp.
Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005 but has since fallen foul of the system, especially after supporting mass protests in 2009, and is banned from leaving the country or appearing in official media.
That meeting drew a shocked response from another leading ayatollah, Mohammad Yazdi, who leads an influential conservative clerical association in Qom, regarded as Iran’s religious capital.
Yazdi is one of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s appointees to the Guardian Council, a supervisory body that has a veto over all parliamentary laws.
“Following the publication of pictures on social media of you alongside some problematic individuals who have no respect for the system of the Islamic republic and the supreme leader, I hereby state that this issue has caused concern and upset among followers and in the seminaries,” Yazdi wrote in an open letter published by the Jamaran news site.
“I would like to remind you that your status and respect are tied to your respect for the ruling Islamic system, the leadership and the status of marjas... and take steps to ensure such matters are not repeated again,” he added.
To criticize a grand ayatollah in this way was considered beyond the pale for many observers.
Abbas Salehi, minister of Islamic culture and guidance, tweeted late Saturday: “We must be careful not to weaken the pure marjas under the banner of preserving the system, and not spoil Shiite historical heritage.”
At least one ayatollah resigned from Yazdi’s religious association in protest, while another, Ayatollah Hadavi Tehrani, said the “impolite” letter to Zanjani had caused “sadness and sorrow”.
Responses continued to come from many senior officials and commentators on Sunday.
“We Shiites are proud that our noble marjas have never gotten permission from any power but glorious God and have not been bound by the constraints of any political and economic bodies,” tweeted Elisa Hazrati, a member of parliament and managing director of the reformist Etemad newspaper.