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Iran's Supreme Leader Pushes Boundaries of Authority

By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
December 21, 2000

TEHRAN The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, is changing the nation's postrevolutionary history by expanding his divine mandate to include the daily affairs of governing.

Since being appointed the supreme leader on the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei has extended his reach to include the affairs of Parliament, the presidency and even the theological seminaries, which long took pride in independence from government control.

Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, who did not believe in intervening directly in political matters, Ayatollah Khamenei has involved himself in a wide range of governmental activities - and has thus opened himself to more criticism but also weakened the power of the president, a moderate. Analysts say one change that has prompted Ayatollah Khamenei's new role in politics is his solid alliance with conservatives in Iran.

Once Ayatollah Khamenei expresses his will in speeches, loyalists in institutions like the judiciary carry out his desires.

This alliance with a political faction did not exist under Ayatollah Khomeini, even though he at times he ruled by decree. During his 10 years as supreme leader, beginning with the Islamic revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini preferred to balance Iran's rival political factions.

In an example of direction intervention, Ayatollah Khamenei last week ordered President Mohammed Khatami to oust the minister of Islamic culture and guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, who had come to symbolize free expression and artistic liberalization. Mr. Mohajerani submitted his resignation months before to ease the mounting pressure from conservatives on President Khatami to remove him. Mr. Khatami had resisted until Ayatollah Khamenei gave the order.

And in August, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered Parliament to kill legislation aimed at reviving publications that had been banned after they supported moderates who made significant gains in parliamentary elections in February and May.

The speaker of Parliament, or the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Ayatollah Mahdi Karrubi, had visited Ayatollah Khamenei to try to gain his support for the new legislation. But after the supreme leader was told that a presidential aide had vowed to persuade 100 deputies to confront him directly if he tried to kill the legislation, Ayatollah Khamenei decided to assert his political power. Just minutes before Parliament was to vote, the supreme leader's order instructing deputies to kill the legislation was read out in open session.

Analysts said the intervention was unnecessary, because even if Parliament had passed the legislation, a conservative body of clerics and jurists called the Guardian Council would have vetoed it. The Guardian Council, not the leader, is directly charged with determining whether legislation conforms to Islamic law.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also provoked criticism from Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a moderate, and other senior clerics who have hinted that the supreme leader's decisions border on one-man rule, an anathema in Shiite tradition, the branch of Islam that is followed by about 90 percent of the people in Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei's direct role in politics has effectively diffused the powers of Mr. Khatami as president. Now that Mr. Khatami has been forced to accept Mr. Mohajerani's resignation as the minister of Islamic culture and guidance, analysts are asking whether there is anything left of the presidency. Mr. Khatami is considering whether to run for re-election in June. If he does, and wins, he is likely to become more of a figurehead. If he bows out, the conservatives are likely to win the office.

"This is the new Iran," an analyst said. "Khatami supplies the smiling face for the West while the conservatives run the country."

By applying a hands-on approach to running the country, Ayatollah Khamenei has demystified the post of supreme leader and made himself vulnerable to criticism in the way any politician must answer to constituents. In Tehran, young men have been distributing copies of a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei that criticizes his rule and offers him advice on how to run the country.

That such a letter was sent to him, and then made public, signals the changing role of the supreme leader: The once untouchable post has become a matter open for public debate, even at a high cost. Criticizing the supreme leader carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

In the letter, the author, identified as a revolutionary who had accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on his famous plane trip from Paris to Tehran in 1979 to lead the revolution, accuses Ayatollah Khamenei of finding "enemies" in every corner.

"Have you considered that pseudofascist directors of Kayhan can be the very cultural enemies you fear," the letter said, referring to a conservative newspaper. "Your excellency, please believe me. The best way to run a country is to respect the freedoms."

Ayatollah Khamenei has also tried to take control of the established system of collecting religious taxes, the traditional source of senior clerics' power and independence from the government. Sources in the holy Shiite city of Qum say a representative from the supreme leader's office has visited at least five senior religious officials to propose channeling the taxes, worth tens of millions of dollars, into a general fund under Mr. Khamenei's control.

Such a change would deprive these senior theologians of their valuable patronage networks and force theology students, who receive much needed stipends, to become loyal to the supreme leader rather than their current patrons, the top clerics who are involved in high-stakes politics and who sometimes are at odds with Ayatollah Khamenei. All but one cleric rejected the proposal, the sources say.

Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian scholar in Washington who is conducting extensive research on the clergy in Iran, said Ayatollah Khamenei's new assertiveness in politics had provoked another divide among senior clerics in Qum.

"There are pro-reform clergy and some senior theologians who are more concerned with the future of Shiite Islam and its institutions than a temporary state-supported religion," Mr. Nafisi said. "These individuals are criticizing rather openly Mr. Khamenei's new turn."


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