Khamenei Coerces Qom into Submission

Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei’s fourth official trip to Qom, one of the world’s two great centers of Shiism (the other is Najaf, in Iraq), finally took place after much planning and preparation. Throughout his reign, Khamenei has made many secret trips to Qom to talk to his allies in the seminaries there, and at the beginning of every Iranian New Year he travels to the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. But his latest official trip to Qom was very different from those in the past, due to the surrounding circumstances. The trip was meant to demonstrate to the world that Khamenei is in command, is still popular, is supported by the senior clerics, and is recognized as a Marja taghlid (source of emulation for the masses).

Unlike his predecessor as Supreme Leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — Khamenei has never had his own independent base of popular support. He did not belong to Khomeini’s inner circle, nor was he an original member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council that Khomeini formed in January 1979 to prepare for the transition from the monarchic rule of the Pahlavi dynasty to the Islamic Republic. He was brought into the council only later and given a relatively junior position, deputy minister of defense. He had the rank of hojatoleslam, one grade below an ayatollah, and much less significant than a grand ayatollah.

When Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader, held an emergency session to select his successor. The first choice was Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1895-1993), one of that era’s two foremost Marjas taghlid and highly respected by Khomeini. But he did not receive the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of the assembly. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — the main power broker of the time — proposed that, instead of choosing a new Supreme Leader, the assembly select a leadership council to oversee the country, consisting of himself, Ahmad Khomeini (1945-1995) (the ayatollah’s youngest son), Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (a close aide to Khomeini who is now allied with the reformists), Ayatollah Ali Meshkini (1922-2007), and Hojatoleslam Khamenei.

When the leadership council notion was rejected by the assembly, Rafsanjani turned to Khamenei as his candidate for Supreme Leader due to their long friendship and the fact that he considered Khamenei weak in religious credentials and therefore pliable. Assisted by Ahmad Khomeini, Rafsanjani cooked up a statement supposedly uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini. According to this „quotation,“ Khomeini had indicated that he thought Khamenei was qualified to be the next Supreme Leader, even though no one recognized him as an ayatollah and many, including his own teachers in the Qom and Mashhad seminaries, did not consider him even a mojtahed (one who has the authority to interpret Islamic teachings). No one else has ever claimed to have heard Khomeini offer any such view. I doubt the authenticity of the quote, given the tense relationship between the two men.

Hojatoleslam Khamenei was appointed as Supreme Leader and thus, overnight, became Ayatollah Khamenei, though he was not recognized as such by the grand ayatollahs and independent clergy of the era. The leading grand ayatollahs, Golpayegani and Mohammad Ali Araki (1895-1994), sent him congratulatory telegrams that referred to him as hojatoleslam. This left a lasting impression on Khamenei, making it clear to him that he needed to be recognized as a Marja if he was going to have legitimacy in the theocratic system. He consequently decided to make the Qom seminaries reliant on him for financial resources, hence destroying the main pillar of Shiism — the independence of the religious establishment from centers of political power. Lacking any popular base of support and the sort of charisma and authority with which Khomeini was endowed, Khamenei began relying on the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence apparatus, paramilitary vigilante groups, and right-wing clerics to advance his agenda. At the same time, it is widely believed that Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Musa Shobeiri Zanjani and Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi regularly visited him at his home, teaching him the fundamentals of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), of which he had little knowledge.

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