Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is the Iranian regime Sistani-able?

Those who doubt the force or staying power of Iran's Green movement often characterize the movement as essentially leaderless and unfocused in its goals. It's true that putative leaders Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami are presently focusing on reform platforms; they condemn violence and assert that they want to work within the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.  As the regime and hardline establishment figures repeatedly retreat into recalcitrance, arresting and terrorizing demonstrators, intimidating the reformist leaders, calling for executions of demonstrators and sometimes death sentences for the leaders, it's hard to imagine the old establishment reformists finding a path toward meaningful compromise with a regime that has (as they sometimes themselves assert) has lost legitimacy. And it's true that there is no high profile leader calling for a full-scale regime change - which would be impossible from within the country.

At World Politics Review, Masoud Shafaee suggests a possible source of galvanizing leadership for those seeking change in Iran.  In an article tracing divisions between Iranian clerics, including recent assaults on close Montezari associate and presumptive spiritual heir Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, Shafaee speculates:
Yet ironically, the regime may face its greatest threat not from within, but from outside the country. Ever since June's contested election, observers have been keeping a close watch on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (who hails from Iran but resides in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq), considered the highest living authority in all of Shiite Islam. Sistani comes from the "quietist" tradition of Shiite theology, one that, unlike the Islamic Republic's ruling doctrine of velayat-eh faqih, holds that clerics should abstain from becoming directly involved in politics. So far, he has refrained from condemning the regime's actions. But his clout is so strong in the Shiite world that, were this to change, the Islamic Republic would arguably no longer face just a political crisis within Iran, but also a crisis of religious confidence among all Shiites.

For now, the influential cleric has shown no signs of weighing in on the unrest. As Ashura came and went, Sistani issued a statement only inviting followers to attend memorial services for the "martyrs" who died in recent terrorist attacks in Karbala and Kazemein, Iraq. Yet there is little doubt that Sistani is watching events unfold in his native land. In November, he met with Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's Parliament, and more recently, he defended Sanei in the aftermath of Yazdi's attack.

Shafaee really presents this possibility as little more than a dreamy 'what if.' While al-Sistani did defend Sanei, so did a wide range of voices (including Rafsanjani), and Yazdi backed off.

For what it's worth, though, the Iranian powers that be do seem eager to placate/flatter/allign themselves with the most revered living Shiite cleric.  Hence this gesture by the Iranian Parliament:
Iran's conservative-dominated parliament has slammed a Saudi Friday prayer leader, saying he insulted Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, newspapers reported on Monday.

A statement endorsed by 240 members of the 290-seat parliament urged the government in Sunni Saudi Arabia to launch legal action against Wahhabi cleric Mohammed al-Urifi for allegedly calling Sistani an "atheist and debauched."...

The so-called cleric has targeted the Shiite school of thought as well as one of their prestigious religious leaders," the parliamentary statement read out on Sunday said of Sistani.

And in best paranoid Iranian style, the state media lines up the ducks on the other side of the sectarian ledger:

Once again the voice of the United States was heard from a Wahhabi cleric in Saudi Arabia who misused the weekly congregation to speak against Muslim interests at a time when the Umma (nation) needs unity and solidarity," the government English-language Iran Daily reported [Ah, our friends the Wahhabis....].
Perhaps Sistani's support would provide critical mass to the reformist/revolutionaries in Iran.  But is there any reason to assume that that support may be forthcoming?

UPDATE, 1/13: Abbas Milani at TNR also wonders whether Yazdi's attack on Montezari heir apparent Sanei will trigger a reaction from Sisani:
Already, there’s loud opposition to the persecution of Ayatollah Sanei. It is widely seen as the regime's preemptive attack on a cleric who could fill the place of Montazeri and become the new spearhead of clerical opposition to the regime. It will be fascinating to see whether Ayatollah Sistani--the senior Iraqi-based cleric and a leading exponent of quietism--will weigh in on this historic breach of clerical independence. Sanei’s case could become a touchstone in this battle over the future of Shiism--the battle between one strand of increasingly rational Shiism and another strand that grows ever more messianic and superstitious.
See also: Our friends the Wahhabis

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