How Iran's Clerics Can Undermine Ahmadinejad

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In 1979, the clergy were behind the Islamic revolution which overthrew the Shah.

In 2009, the silence of some of the clergy in Qom against the current crisis is deafening to the supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In an article published on June 16 in the pro-Ahmadinejad Borna News agency, it was asked why - despite the fact that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won 24 million votes - he had still not been congratulated by some of the clergy in Qom? Even more importantly the article asks why it is that some of the senior clergy have not condemned the recent violence. Although the article does not mention any names, it is not difficult to guess that one such clergyman is Ayatollah Sanei, who has publicly lambasted Ahmadinejad since the results of the election became public.

The behavior of the clerics has certainly been out of the ordinary. Usually, within a day of a president's election, the majority - if not all of the 14 senior Ayatollahs of Qom - will congratulate the new president. Not this time.

What bothers Ahmadinejad's supporters is not just the lack of etiquette. They are concerned that they may be planning something behind his back.

Such concerns are justified. Some very well known clerics are not pleased. A week before the elections, a number of senior Ayatollahs issued a fatwa (religious decree) stating that any fraud in the elections would be haram (a sin). According to the Rooz daily, this list of clerical critics included heavy weights such as Makarem Shirazi, Mousavi Ardebili and Yousef Sanei. Another notable name that stood out was that of Ayatollah Javadi Amoli. This senior clergyman was an Ahmadinejad ally, and in fact hosted the president in his house in 2005, when Ahmadinejad talked about his holy moment in the UN when he felt a halo of light surround his head.

A week later, judging by what the people of Iran claim, there was fraud. Just to add more weight to the conspiracy theories, Mohamamd Asgari, one of the persons responsible for security of the computer networks in the interior ministry, was killed in a suspicious car accident. Asgari had apparently leaked evidence that showed the elections were rigged to alter provincial votes.

But the question remains: what can the clergy do about Ahmadinejad? What power do they have?

Although the president has the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), the clerics still have considerable power over the country's charitable foundations (Bonyads). These multibillion dollar business organizations don't report their income or pay taxes. They report directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Their participation in the economy is crucial. They could make life difficult for Ahmadinejad's presidency by increasing their business clout in areas where the IRGC is trying to muscle in. These industries include energy, construction and the import/export sector.

Last year, these clerics scored a major victory. Bonyade Mostazafin (Charity foundation for the dispossessed) was allowed to buy and sell oil, allowing them to compete directly with Iran's National Oil Company. This raised the fury of Ahmadinejad's supporters. As means of checking Ahmadinejad's power, they could expand further into this sector, or compete in the lucrative construction sector. These companies also have huge financial assets. These can be used to finance new businesses which compete directly with the IRGC.

They could also side with Ayatollah Rafsanjani. It is an accepted fact that Rafsanjani financed part of Mousavi's campaign. This obviously dented Ahmadinejad's popularity. So much so, apparently, that Ayatollah Khamenei felt compelled to assist the president by allowing fraud. Rafsanjani is already a millionaire many times over. Should the clergy start helping him financially, using his political muscle in the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, he could further challenge Ahmadinejad politically.

Last but not least, is the all important judiciary. The clergy, especially former members of the Haghani school in Qom, are very active in this body. Some people mistakenly believe that these people answer to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is Ahmadinejad's mentor. This is a mistake. Mesbah Yazdi left Haghani 15 years prior to the revolution, because he believed the school and its thinking - which allowed the study of English - was too lenient. It also allowed the teachings of Ali Shariati, one of the philosophical founders of the revolution.

Dr. Bagher Larijani, brother of Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani (also related to Ayatollah Amoli) is the current head of the Haghani school. Many judges are students of Qom seminaries. Their cooperation is very important for the president, as contradictions against his wishes (as we saw with Ayatollah Shahroudi, the previous head of judiciary), could be embarrassing and counter-productive for him.

Currently, the Supreme Leader of Iran is looking for ways to calm the situation. His main concern should be Mir Hossein Mousavi. However, the clergy should not be left out. Khamenei needs their support as well. Although he views some of them as his natural rivals - owing to their economic and religious clout - their exclusion could be much more damaging than their inclusion.

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