Clerics Clamor for New Leaders amid Rising Popular Unrest

Forecasts that the popular unrest in Iran would die down soon were wrong. They were shared by circles in the Obama administration, if only in the hope of keeping the window to dialogue open. It turns out that the protest movement is swelling with every passing day as the Iranian people become convinced that regime change is mandatory.

Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the failed presidential candidates who lead the opposition, are not yet saying so openly – inhibited by their long commitment to the Islamic Revolutionary regime and the fear that its fall might also end their own careers – but they are being overtaken by the rush of events.

The ruling elite are not coping with their increasing unpopularity but rather disoriented by widening and confusing internal divisions.

Prominent clerics, among them Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, A. Safi Golpayegani and Moussavi Tabrizia, have accused the national leaders of repressive measures in defiance of Islam.

They have begun calling into question Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's competence as a spiritual leader.

The revolutionary constitution requires the holder of this supreme post to be resourceful and crafty – “Modir va Modaber” in Persian – which is to say capable of navigating the ship of state in stormy waters.

But these eminent ayatollahs charge Khamenei with committing fateful blunders and so placing the wisdom of his decisions in grave doubt.

One such blunder was his haste in congratulating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the ballots from the June 12 presidential election had all been tallied and amid opposition accusations of election fraud already in full cry. They condemned as ill-judged Khameinei's threats to protesters and his orders to security forces to shoot at them. This supreme leader, said the ayatollahs, had made himself guilty of the deaths of innocent Iranian citizens.

While clearly concerned for the future of the regime, the high-ranking clerics are making the point that Khamenei needs to go and be replaced by a more competent figure.


More secret prisons, more torture


Spokesmen for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei hit back by accusing ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani of orchestrating the propaganda campaign denigrating them. They say he has paid dozens of visits to the holy city of Qom since the election, which is true, and stirred up the highest-ranking clerics, grand ayatollahs against them.

Rafsjanjani is reckoned a powerhouse in his own right as chairman of the Expediency Council and of the Council of Experts which is authorized to appoint and fire the supreme leader. In recent weeks he has come out openly in support of the opposition.

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have not been idle against their maligners.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly Iranian sources, they are collecting the signatures of Council of Experts members and religious seminary teachers for petitions lauding the president and listing the “sins” of Rafsanjani. They claim that 65 of the 85 Council of Expert members have signed their petition.

Rafsanjani, who too is fighting for survival as a veteran of the Islamic regime, continues in his efforts to act as go-between for the two rival camps.

In the interests of unity, he is lobbying for the release of the hundreds of detainees rounded up as supporters of Moussavi and Karroubi, compensation for the families of those killed in the riots and a halt to the torture of detainees in prisons.


Khamenei and Ahmadinejad at each other's throats too


But Ahmadinejad has defied this appeal by opening at least six secret prisons for detained protesters and subjecting them to even more savage abuses. Parliamentarians of the Majlis and senior clerics are now clamoring for a commission of inquiry to examine conditions in the secret prisons.

The judiciary have stepped in by setting up their own inquiry. As matters veered out of hand, Khamenei ordered the Kharizaq prison closed and its prisoners relocated in other prisons.

Thursday, July 30, security forces were sent to beat up mourners rallied by the opposition to mark the 40th day of the deaths of protesters against the disputed election at Tehran's main graveyard. Mousavi was personally bundled back into his car when he tried to approach the grave of Neda Agha Soltan.

The pressure is also getting to the two allies and souring their relations.

Ahmadinejad obeyed Khamenei's directive to drop Esfandyar Rahim Moshaee (his father-in-law) from the vice presidency – but then promptly nominated him chief of staff in his second-term presidential bureau, to take office after the president is sworn in on Aug. 5.

The choice of this date further infuriated the people and the lawmakers: it marks the anniversary of Iran's 1905 constitutional revolution which is celebrated nationally as a milestone on the road to liberty.

The president's swearing-in therefore is likely to take place in a partly empty Majlis.

Meanwhile, Monday, 27, Tehran was awash with rumors that Revolutionary Guards chiefs and the spiritual leader's aides had decided at a secret meeting to stage an accident for eliminating Ahmadinejad and so end their troubles.

The rumor proved incorrect but the speed with which it spread through the streets and the university campuses is a measure of president's soaring unpopularity.


Whither the Revolutionary Guard?


The designated president's irrational behavior has evoked much derision.

Ten days before his inauguration, he fired four of the ministers he appointed. This undermined the legitimacy of his own cabinet because more than half of its 21 members had been replaced and a new vote of confidence was now called for.

To escape this self-made predicament, Ahmadinejad said only one ministerial resignation was valid, that of intelligence minister Mohseni Eje-ee, because he had not accepted the others even though they insist their resignations are final. The president has thus created a new precedent in the history of the Islamic Republic: a designated president finds himself without a cabinet majority before his own inauguration.

He is also encountering divided loyalties in his key power base the Revolutionary Guards. More and more commanders and security personnel are refusing to open fire on or beat demonstrators. Some mid-level officers are said to have outspokenly supported opposition leader Mousavi and been secretly executed.

The Revolutionary Guards Chief Mohammad Ali Jaafari was conspicuously silent when junior officers offered a pledge of loyalty to the president and supreme leader.

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