The most exciting and underreported news of the past few weeks in Iran has been that the emerging challenger to the increasingly frantic and isolated "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. And Rafsanjani has recently made a visit to the city of Najaf in Iraq to confer with Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, a long-standing opponent of the Khamenei doctrines, as well as meeting in the city of Qum with Jawad al-Shahristani, who is Sistani's representative in Iran. It is this dialectic between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites that underlies the flabbergasting statement issued from Qum last weekend to the effect that the Ahmadinejad government has no claim to be the representative of the Iranian people.
One of the apparent paradoxes involved in visiting Iran is this: If you want to find deep-rooted opposition to the clerical autocracy, you must make a trip to the holy cities of Mashad and Qum. It is in places like this, consecrated to the various imams of Shiite mythology, that the most stubborn and vivid criticism is often to be heard—as well as the sort of criticism that the ruling mullahs find it hardest to deal with.
So it is very hard to overstate the significance of the statement made last Saturday by the Association of Teachers and Researchers of Qum, a much-respected source of religious rulings, which has in effect come right out with it and said that the recent farcical and prearranged plebiscite in the country was just that: a sham event. (In this, the clerics of Qum are a lot more clear-eyed than many American "experts" on Iranian public opinion, who were busy until recently writing about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the rough-hewn man of the people.)
It's not too much to read two things into the association's statement. The first is that public discontent with the outrages of the last few weeks must be extremely deep and extremely widespread. Differences among the clerisy are usually solved in much more discreet ways. If the Shiite scholars of Qum are willing to go public and call the Ahmadinejad regime an impostor, they must be impressed with the intensity of feeling at the grass roots. The second induction follows from the first: It is not an exaggeration to say that the Islamic republic in its present form is now undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy.
An excellent article by Abbas Milani in the current issue of the New Republic gives a historical and ideological backdrop to the discrepant forces within Shiism and in particular to the long disagreement between those who think that the clergy must rule on behalf of the people (the ultra-reactionary notion of the velayat-e faqui, which I discussed in this column) and those who do not. Among the more surprising members of the anti-Khomeini opposition is the late ayatollah's grandson Sayeed Khomeini, a relatively junior cleric in Qum about whom I have also written before. And among the best-known of those who think it is profane for the clergy to degrade and compromise themselves with political power is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, spiritual leader of neighboring Iraq. (To emphasize the cross-fertilization a bit further, bear in mind that Sistani is in fact an Iranian, while Ayatollah Khomeini did much of his brooding on a future religious despotism while in exile in Iraq.)
Which brings me to a question that I think deserves to be asked: Did the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the subsequent holding of competitive elections in which many rival Iraqi Shiite parties took part, have any germinal influence on the astonishing events in Iran? Certainly when I interviewed Sayeed Khomeini in Qum some years ago, where he spoke openly about "the liberation of Iraq," he seemed to hope and believe that the example would spread. One swallow does not make a summer. But consider this: Many Iranians go as religious pilgrims to the holy sites of Najaf and Kerbala in southern Iraq. They have seen the way in which national and local elections have been held, more or less fairly and openly, with different Iraqi Shiite parties having to bid for votes (and with those parties aligned with Iran's regime doing less and less well). They have seen an often turbulent Iraqi Parliament holding genuine debates that are reported with reasonable fairness in the Iraqi media. Meanwhile, an Iranian mullah caste that classifies its own people as children who are mere wards of the state puts on a "let's pretend" election and even then tries to fix the outcome. Iranians by no means like to take their tune from Arabs—perhaps least of all from Iraqis—but watching something like the real thing next door may well have increased the appetite for the genuine article in Iran itself.
There are, no doubt, other determining factors as well. Contrary to the simplistic distinction between the "liberal urban" and the "conservative rural" that is made by so many glib commentators, Iran is a country where very rapid urbanization of a formerly rural population is being undergone, and all good Marxists ought to know that historically this has always been a moment pregnant with revolutionary discontent. In Saddam's Iraq, the possession of a satellite dish was punishable by death; everybody knows that the mullahs in Iran cannot enforce their own ban on informal media and unofficial transmission. And yet, precisely because they are so dense and so fanatical, they doom themselves to keep on trying. Every Iranian I know is now convinced that if this is not the end for the Khamenei system, it is at least the harbinger of the beginning of the end.