Monday, June 22, 2009

Iran - Another Side

     al-Sistani - he looks a bit sinister, but he's not.

There's a very interesting side-story developing in the Iran situation.  The linked article is really good.

The position of Supreme leader, as defined by Ayatollah Khomeini, is a new idea.  Traditionally, Shia clergy have avoided politics as a matter of doctrine.  Both the most traditional and most progressive wings of the clergy regard such a position as unsupported by tradition.  Khomeini could get away with it.  He did so partly by starting small and then bit by bit expanding the power of the position.  The position was first supposed to be based on the role of the the leader in being the concionce and spiritual leader of the country.  Then it expanded to become the spiritual gurardian of the country, then the highest arbiter between civil and spiritual matters, and finally something like a king. 

Through caution and a light hand, Khamenei has managed to also get away with it.  However, his ill-advised speech on Friday has stirred up clerical opposition.  For the first time in many years, people are discussing if a Supreme Leader with defined political powers is appropriate in Shia Islam.  

This is where it gets interesting.  Some hints have emerged of discussions in Qom (the religious capital of Iran) and Najaf.  Najaf is, of course, in Iraq.  Saying it is being discussed in Najaf is a reference to the man who lives in there, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.  al-Sistani is the most senior and revered of all Shia clergy.  Although Iranian, he has lived in Karbala for decades.  Saddam Hussein didn't dare touch him. 

al-Sistani is a fascinating figure.  His word is law to Shiites, but he is very careful about what he says.  Twice since the fall of Saddam's government, al-Sistani has saved Iraq from total meltdown by acting as adult supervision for the Shiite militias and then the  Shia government in Baghdad.  This is not to say he is everybody's best friend.  He is completely opposed to the American occupation, has never met with the Americans and famously didn't open a letter sent to him by President Bush.  I think that just on the basis of stopping an all-out war between the Shiite militas and the Americans in 2004, al-Sistani should get the Nobel Peace Prize.

He functions in Iraq the way the Iranian Supreme Leader was first defined.  He is an un-elected, non-office holding supreme religious authority.  There is no role for him under the Iraqi constitution, but as long as the government is run by Shia, his advice and fatwas cannot be ignored by any politician. 

If al-Sistani wanted to become the Supreme Leader of Iran, they'd kick Khamenei out in a minute.  But of course, al-Sistani doesn't want to run a country.  His work is more important than that.  That his attitude is gaining some traction in Iran is bad for Khamenei.  Although they love the perks and riches of power, some Iranian clergy may remember that it didn't always used to be this way.  That this is not the traditional order of things.  In al-Sistani's way of looking at things, the Iranian clergy is in dire risk of becoming just another political regime.  To the extent Khamenei publicly shows his power, he reduces the moral and spiritual authority of the clergy.  In the long-run, these are far more important than holding power in a government created by men. 

People are talking about the current unrest as a potential second revolution.  However, with his poor handling of the election and the unrest, Khamenei may be tempting an entirely different revolution from within.