Iran has a checkered history of clergymen's involvement in politics. Ali Khamenei follows in troubled footsteps.
The Magus Gaumata was stabbed to death for attempting to seize the throne in the late 6th century BCE. The High Magus Kirdir became infamous for persecuting religious minorities in the late 3rd century, as did the Shaikh al-Islam Mohammad Majlesi in the late 17th century. The Ayatollah Fazlollah Nuri was hung for trying to create a theocracy in the early 20th century.
Friday July 17th marks Khamenei's 70th birthday. He was born in the northeast Iranian holy city of Mashhad on July 17, 1939, according to his official website.
How did yet one more individual regarded by many other clerics as theologically mediocre and popularly uninspiring end up as Iran's second supreme leader? And, how should his birthday be commemorated?
Khamenei emerged as an important figure in the 1979 Islamic revolution because he had become a disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's spiritual leader. Khamenei functioned as deputy minister of defense and as overseer of the IRGC or Pasdaran in the nascent Islamic government. Next, with Khomeini's endorsement, he served two terms as Iran's president.
Not appropriately qualified and an extremist, Khamenei was not the foremost candidate to replace the deceased Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a social moderate, was far more eligible theologically but had fallen out of official grace for opposing intolerance. The pragmatic Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpaygani failed to gain the necessary votes in the first round of balloting among the clerics of the Assembly of Experts. So the ruling theocracy turned to Khamenei.
Khamenei's elevation to supreme leader was challenged by the Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Shirazi, Yasubedin Rastegari, Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi, and other learned Shiite clerics. They did so because the new supreme leader had not earned the rank of ayatollah, was not a marja or person to be emulated, and was thought to lack the ability to guide Iran wisely. To counter those criticisms and since Khamenei was the new supreme leader, the necessary religious ranks were quickly bestowed upon him by his supporters!
The newly anointed ayatollah and velayat-e faqih Khamenei proved to be a shrewd politician. He isolated political opponents, imprisoned important mullahs who believe that clerics should have advisory rather than direct roles in politics, and increased the powers of the position of supreme leader. He carefully nurtured links with the militant IRGC to ensure that opposition to his rule could be combated violently. Steadily Khamenei built around him a clique hostile to plurality, moderation, and fundamental rights.
So how can Khamenei's 70th birthday be celebrated when his leadership has brought oppression, pain, and suffering to Iranians?
Khamenei's bad deeds now have placed him on the brink of a political abyss. Incautious confirmation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as re-elected to Iran's presidency finally has galvanized a broad-based coalition of clerics, secular politicians, entrepreneurs, women, students, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and other middle and upper class members of Iran's society against the supreme leader. Khamenei has lost followers among the rural poor as well, because his administrators -- including Ahmadinejad -- have mismanaged Iran's economy.
The Iranian people can spend Khamenei's birthday continuing to protest and lament his leadership publicly. The clerical opposition that has coalesced around Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Karroubi can work with the Assembly of Experts, which is headed by Rafsanjani himself, to remove Khamenei from office and to abolish that position. The majles or parliament can conduct free and fair elections, whose outcome would be within a political system that represents fully the will and the aspiration of Iran's citizens.
The Iranian people can best celebrate Khamenei's 70th birthday by booting him and his cronies out of office. The administrations of the United States of America, the European Union, and the United Nations can mark the supreme leader's birthday through demonstrating their firm support for the objective of Iran's citizens by no longer pandering to him and his ilk with business as usual.