While the Iranian regime appears to be finding support these days in Shiite quarters from Beirut to Baghdad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is searching for theological backing this week in his own backyard.
Khamenei began on Tuesday an unprecedented, nine-day trip to Qom, the holy city that is the center for Shiite learning. The objective of his journey is to seek assurances of loyalty, after more than a year of harsh criticism, not only coming from dissident clerics and seminarians but religious scholars who were once staunch supporters of the Islamic republic.
Now, a number of Grand Ayatollahs openly criticize Iran's leadership for its handling of the disputed 2009 presidential election and for imposing a campaign of repression against the Iranian population. The violence committed by the security forces, with Khamenei's implicit backing, has led many religious scholars to declare Khamenei unfit to lead an Islamic state.
Less than a month ago, the respected Grand Ayatollah Ali-Mohammad Dastgheib struck a blow to Khamenei's authority. When Dastgheib was asked by a follower about the legitimacy of the Vali Faqih, or guardian jurist, and the way it is currently implemented, he issued a provocative response, questioning Khamenei's authority and opposing the concentration of power in one man. In his lengthy written response, the Grand Ayatollah from Shiraz argued that the Vali Faqih must have a "special place in people's hearts and minds," something Dastgheib implied Khamenei lacks.
Khamenei is also the target of the turbaned class because of his unwavering support in 2009 for the re-election of President Ahmadinejad; Khamenei was highly instrumental in returning Ahmadinejad to power. According to Ataollah Mohajerani, a reformist-oriented former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance now living in London, only two of Qom's twelve Grand Ayatollahs openly support Ahmadinejad's administration.
Qom's lack of subordination is a threat to Khamenei's rule and to the long-term survival of the Islamic Republic -- a system which prides itself with fusing (at least in theory) Islamic values and a republican form of governance. Since June of 2009, Iranians have called into question Iran's claim to being either a republic or an Islamic state. And if the religious establishment, which many Iranians still respect, echos the views of disillusioned Iranians, Khamenei risks becoming a mere figurehead of an Islamic revolution gone awry. Although Khamenei has had a credibility problem since he was appointed Leader in 1989, now critics are no longer fearful of publicly condemning his rule.
During his trip to Qom, Khamenei gave a fiery speech at Qom's Astaneh Square in which he called his enemies "microbes" and said the events following the June 12 election "vaccinated" the Islamic republic against these microbes. He emphasized the role of popular support for the Islamic republic and said the "revolution was supported by the people" and warned about the enemy's plan to create a cleavage between the people and Shiite clerics.
The Supreme Leader then claimed that sanctions have had no real impact on people's lives in Iran. He said the enemy has two main objectives: damaging people's faith and weakening their loyalty to the government. Khamenei once again supported the government of President Ahmadinejad and criticized those who intentionally turned a blind eye to the services of the current government. After his speech, Khamenei went on to pay his respects to the holy shrine of Masoumeh, a Shiite holy shrine in Qom, and to meet with a number of senior clerics and administrators of Qom's seminaries. Major Sources of Emulation were not present at this meeting, but a pro-government news agency reported that they will meet with the Leader later this week.
In addition to speaking to carefully coordinated crowds, his nine-day trip includes holding an audience with Qom's seminary students, teachers, local residents, and foreign students. But his most important meetings will be on Saturday and Sunday when he meets with senior clerics, including a number of Grand Ayatollahs.
Ahead of his trip to Qom, Khamenei's loyalists engaged in a bit of advance public relations. Ali Larijani, the conservative speaker of parliament, jumped to Khamenei's support when, forty-eight hours before Khamenei's "historic" visit to Qom, a reporter asked Larijani whether this visit would be successful in diffusing the enemy's plan to show a rift between Khamenei and senior clerics. Larijani responded, "There is no cleavage between the leader and the Sources of Emulation." He also said that "Velayat Faqih is the fruit of the tree of Sources of Emulation." But then he went on to attack those with impure thoughts who consider themselves believers of the faith and followers of the great Sources of Emulation, yet claim not to believe in Velayat Faqih.
In addition, hardliner cleric Ahmad Khatami announced that, according to the Leader's expressed wishes, a number of new "religious think-tanks" will be created in Qom. While praising Khamenei's exceptional knowledge of jurisprudential matters, Khatami said these "religious think-tanks" will produce new analysis, thought, and research and "only when the environment becomes right, these [religious teachings] will be effective," setting the stage for funneling enormous sums of money to create centers of thought beholden to Khamenei.
Clearly, Khamenei understands the difficulties he is facing. For one thing, the regime has employed a well-orchestrated propaganda machine to promote Khamenei as the most knowledgeable and the most eligible Source of Emulation. At times, his supporters call him Imam, a title that was reserved only for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Preachers and prayer leaders throughout the country are paid to promote the Leader as the "aslah" or the best fit to lead, something that was rarely witnessed, or necessary, during the reign of Khomeini whose legitimacy went largely unchecked. Last Friday, it was Tehran's prayer leader who broke the "good news" of Khamenei's trip to Qom and predicted a "glorious visit"
Prayer leaders and preachers are not the only ones doing the heavy lifting. Every media outlet in Iran has dedicated time and resources to promote Khamenei's visit and to urge the masses to turn up on the streets of Qom to welcome the leader. IRNA, the Islamic Republic's News Agency, has created a separate page committed to promoting and covering this visit. IRIB, Islamic Republic of Iran's Broadcasting simply known as Iran's radio and television, is airing images of Khamenei around the clock. Fars, a semi-official news agency with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, even went as far as to forecast that the residents of Qom will create "another epic turnout" similar to pro-government demonstrations last year.
During Khamenei's visit to Qom, a number of new development projects, including schools, roads, factories, and water plants, to name a few will be launched to bring much needed investment to the desert city. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a conservative cleric who has been at odds with the government of President Ahmadinejad, said on Sunday that, "His [Khamenei's] trip to Qom will bring many blessings to the city" and urged the people of Qom to show their appreciation by welcoming the leader to the city.
Time will tell if Khamenei's orchestrated trip to Qom inspires enough support to alter his legacy.
Geneive Abdo is the director of the InsideIran program at The Century Foundation. Arash Aramesh is a researcher for the InsideIran project.