October 26, 2010
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fourth and longest official visit to Qom since he became supreme leader 21 years ago can be seen as a sign of his self-confidence in ending the unrest following the disputed 2009 presidential election. Khamenei reasserted his authority during a sometimes boisterous nine-day trip to Qom, a holy city and the center of Shiite scholarship in Iran.
Last year, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the Islamic Republic's founding fathers and Khamenei’s former teacher, publically declared that Khamenei lacked the religious credentials to issue fatwas and was ineligible to be the country’s ultimate authority. In one of his last statements before his death in December, Montazeri said that the Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor republic, but had instead become a military dictatorship. Montazeri, who lived in Qom, had effectively become the intellectual mentor to the opposition Green Movement.
At the peak of the post-election demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of Iranians attended Montazeri’s funeral ceremony. His death quickly turned into an unprecedented protest in Qom--a city that had been isolated from the national turmoil--against the regime and especially Khamenei.
Protesters shouted slogans critical of the supreme leader, including “Khamenei is a murderer, so his religious authority is not valid anymore.”After six months of unrest, Montazeri’s funeral in Qom reflected the scope of the challenge to Khamenei's legitimacy as supreme leader.
Since then, however, the regime has tightened its hold on Qom. Clerics who criticized the government for cracking down on protesters last year have been silenced. Some, like Ahmad Qabel, are still in prison. The websites of three ayatollahs have been blocked, their offices shut down, and their houses put under surveillance. The regime has also spent millions of dollars on the clerical establishment and religious institutions to generate support. For a wide variety of reasons, most of Iran’s clerics have for now opted to back the government.
In contrast to the December 2009 protests, thousands greeted Khamenei in Qom in October 2010. The majority of ayatollahs called on him, a sign of deference. The regime’s goal on the tightly controlled trip has been to show that Khamenei’s religious authority and legitimacy were not tarnished by the post-election turmoil.
The Iranian opposition has also tried to use the official visit to underscore divisions among the few clerics still willing to publicly criticize the regime. They do not necessarily reflect a common position, however. The opposition has criticized the Islamic Republic for not being enough of a "republic,” while the traditional clerics have quietly criticized the government for not being “Islamic” enough.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, studied Shiite theology in the Qom seminary of Iran.