While a handful of marginal clerics and religious groups dispute the official result of
The Establishment Iran’s clerical establishment consists of about 200,000 members, and its hierarchy includes many midlevel clerics called hojjat ol-eslam ("proof of Islam") and around a thousand ayatollahs ("sign of God"), who are leaders recognized for their scholarship. Ranking above ayatollahs are roughly fifteen grand ayatollahs, who are revered as sources of emulation, or as religious guides, for many followers.
Khamenei was a mere hojjat ol-eslam when he was elevated to the rank of ayatollah, in a controversial move aimed at making him constitutionally fit to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, as Iran’s principal leader. Khamenei’s authority stems from the principal of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), which combines political and religious power into one supreme authority.
Dissent Only from the Margins The ayatollahs in
A small marginal group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom Seminary, is the only clerical group that has explicitly referred to the presidential election as illegitimate. The association was founded in 1998, and its central council consists of eighteen midranking clerics and one ayatollah. This group plays no role in the administration of the clerical establishment, and none of its members are considered to be sources of emulation. The association was originally created to support former president Muhammad Khatami, but its support has remained symbolic rather than practical. The group’s secretary, the controversial Seyyed Hossein Moussavi Tabrizi, was involved in the execution of many of the regime’s opponents and political prisoners while he was the general prosecutor of the
Coopting the Clerical Establishment Iran’s current clerical establishment has little similarity to what it was prior to 1979 Islamic Revolution. Historically, the clerical class was a semiautonomous political institution with independent financial resources from religious taxes collected directly from followers. But after the revolution, and especially since Khamenei became leader twenty years ago, the establishment became totally dependent on the government’s financial resources, social authority, networking, organization, and political status.
Clerics receive hefty regular stipends from the government, and many ayatollahs have exclusive privileges for numerous profit-making transactions. The government has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment by creating the Center for Seminary Management, which is under direct supervision of Khamenei and is in full control of clerical finances, the seminary’s educational system, and the political direction of the establishment. Even
To control clerics politically, the government created the Special Court of Clerics — an organization that works outside the judiciary branch of government and is headed by an appointee of Khamenei — to deal with dissenting clerics. This independent court does not operate within the country’s legal system; it has own set of procedures and maintains its own prisons in most Iranian cities.
Politically defiant clerics who oppose certain government decisions work outside the clerical establishment and usually have a track record of supporting
Conclusion The Shiite clerical establishment, which stretches across the Middle East, is highly unlikely to initiate any sort of opposition to Khamenei’s authority. Various Shiite leaders may not be happy with the Iranian government’s policies, but publicizing their differences might jeopardize the social, political, and financial advantages they now receive from
Khamenei — for the moment — is in a strong position. The clerical establishment’s prevailing silence, however, could eventually work against him. If the political tide begins to turn, the establishment could be rendered powerless and its support ineffective, leaving Khamenei and his followers in a vulnerable position. Mehdi Khalaji, who trained as a cleric in