Reformers implore Sistani to Intervene in Iran Crisis
Ali Nourizadeh of the Saudi newspaper ash-Sharq al-Awsat reports today that more than 400 Iranian writers and cultural figures, along with some members of parliament, have penned a letter to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, requesting that he express his opinion on the “massacre of democracy and the transformation of parliamentary elections into a mere stage play.”
They wrote, “We have followed with appreciation your courageous positions in calling for the holding of free, fair, and direct elections in Iraq, where the population did not have, until the fall of the Baath regime, the right to own a shortwave radio. That is, holding free elections that can escape foreign influence is a difficult matter if not an impossible one. Nevertheless, your excellency is insisting that the first and last word in the matter of choosing rulers and representatives belongs to the Iraqi people. How wonderful it would be if your excellency would express your opinion regarding the farce that some in your native land of Iran are attempting to impose on its people, who are wide awake, under the rubric of “elections.” Najaf has always been a support for freedom lovers in Iran, for in the Constitutional Revolution [of 1905-1911], your righteous predecessors such as Mirza Na’ini, Akhund Khurasani, and Allamah Mazandarani, supported the devotees of liberty in Iran. Without their famous fatwa, the people would not have been able to bring down the tyrant Muhammad Ali Shah.”
They refer as well to the positive role of the Najaf clerics in Iran’s oil nationalization movement under Prime Minister Mosaddegh. They then complain that Iran is presently one big prison and that major clerics such as Ayatollahs Montazeri and Tabataba’i Qomi are under house arrest. [Montazeri is in trouble for rejecting the Khomeinist doctrine of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent, which says that clerics must directly rule the state. Sistani also rejects this doctrine, and would be under house arrest if he were in Iran.] They describe the exclusion of more than 2500 reformist candidates from running as a [political] “massacre”, and pointedly say that many of those excluded are followers of Sistani in religious affairs [rather than of Khamenei]!
Iran is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis. The clerical Guardian Council excluded some 4000 of 8000 announced candidates from running in the February 20 elections, including large numbers of sitting members of parliament, on the grounds that they were insufficiently faithful to the ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini. Once elections are actually held, they appear to have been relatively free in Iran in recent years, but the ability of clerical conservatives to exclude candidates and to overturn legislation has crippled the once-flourishing reform movement in parliament. On appeal, some of the exclusions were reversed.
Still, a third of the Iranian parliament has resigned in protest against the Guardian Council’s power play. President Khatami has threatened to postpone the elections.
On Wednesday, Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei intervened, saying that elections would be held, if necessary under the armed supervision of the Revolutionary Guards, on the scheduled date, thus slapping down Khatami. But he also permitted the Ministry of Intelligence, where Khatami supporters have some influence, to review the candidate exclusions and overturn those it wished, and promised that the ministry’s decision would be final. Reformers are unconvinced that the Feb. 20 elections can possibly be fair, nevertheless.
The reformers’ reference to the Constitutional Revolution, which instituted the first elected parliament in Iran and first challenged absolutist rule, is extremely provocative, since it casts Khamenei in the role of the tyrant Muhammad Ali Shah. And the call for another intervention on the side of constitutionalism and the rule of law from Najaf is striking for its invocation of historical parallels.
I don’t know if Sistani will respond to this appeal. He has his hands full with the situation in Iraq, after all. But this could get very interesting indeed.