New York Times: Qum, home to some of Iran’s most influential clerics, is not just Iran’s holiest city, but one of its most powerful, a Shiite Vatican in the desert that can make or break any Iranian political career.
The New York Times
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
QUM, Iran — Qum, home to some of Iran’s most influential clerics, is not just Iran’s holiest city, but one of its most powerful, a Shiite Vatican in the desert that can make or break any Iranian political career. So it is not surprising that it has become a destination recently for almost all of the candidates in next week’s presidential election, seeking to sip from the cocktail of money, politics and religion that the city represents.
While the eight presidential candidates, carefully vetted by the government, all hold roughly the same views on the major issues, they need to make sure they have support from Qum.
“The top clergymen from Qum are among the few in the country who can openly criticize all politicians if they feel like it,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an Iranian journalist. “Seeking their allegiance not only prevents public reprimands, but also means the support of their followers.”
Qum’s centrality to the election process tends to attract the more politically minded, though few here speak openly against the government. Sitting on the soft beige carpets that line the halls of the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, a sister of Reza, the Eighth Imam, Rahman Askari, 26, an information technology and theology student from the city of Zanjan, sees the vote as an opportunity to finally achieve the goals of the 1979 revolution.
The bloody war with Iraq, waged from 1980 to 1988, and an accumulation of Western sanctions have long held back Islam in Iran, Mr. Askari said. Now, it is time to become more Islamic, he said, and suggested a much harder line in Iran’s foreign policy.
“Islamic development means never backing down,” Mr. Askari said, admitting that he, like most of the influential clerics in the city, supports Saeed Jalili, the former chief nuclear negotiator who is the candidate of the traditionalists, a coalition of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders. “He is a religious man,” Mr. Askari said. “Islam prescribes that we must never give up in the face of pressures, no matter if they are sanctions, war or criticism of our nuclear program.”
The candidates seek the blessings of high-ranking clerics the way American presidential contenders court wealthy donors. Mr. Jalili, the presumed front-runner, visited the city twice last week, nailing down the support of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who, according to analysts, seems to be the second most influential cleric in Iran, after the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Jalili argues that the answer to Iran’s problems lies not in “Western concepts” like Keynesian economics or human rights; instead he propounds vague slogans like Islamic development and creating an Islamic lifestyle.
Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a hard-liner who in two elections supported the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has often said elections should be used as a way for people to confirm the rule of the clergy. He praised Mr. Jalili for not engaging in popular themes like the economy, instead emphasizing “Islamic and revolutionary values.”
Other prominent candidates, including the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, have also recently made high-profile visits here.
Political missteps come at a high price in Qum. In 2005, President Ahmadinejad told Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli that he had been surrounded by a divine light while addressing the United Nations General Assembly. The remark, caught on video, was a first crack in the now destroyed relationship between the president and leading clergymen, who suspect him of challenging their power by promoting individual relations with God.
Nobody here speaks of Mr. Ahmadinejad; most of the clerics who are close to the traditionalists are backing Mr. Jalili.
That is not to say this is a place of monolithic thinking. The 15 or so leading clerics all have good ties with Ayatollah Khamenei and support his policies, and those who are critical have been silenced. One of those, Ayatollah Yousef Sanaei, who supported the opposition leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi when they fell out with the state after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 victory, has been muzzled.
But behind the official opinions there are glimpses of the same dissatisfactions that can be found elsewhere in the country.
During a funeral on Tuesday for the former Friday Prayer leader of the city of Isfahan, Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, who in 2002 quit his position in protest against the muffling of reformists, dozens of people shouted slogans in favor of the opposition leaders, calling for the lifting of their house arrests, videos on social media Web sites show.
Several of the hundreds of lower-ranking ayatollahs in Qum were dismayed when Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic moderate who in 2009 offered veiled support for the opposition, was disqualified by the conservative Guardian Council, insiders say.
“I do not understand how such an extraordinary figure like Rafsanjani, a man that has guided our revolution, is not allowed to try to become president,” said Ayatollah Mohammad Feiz, an 89-year old cleric. A member of the council that voted in Ayatollah Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader in 1989, Ayatollah Feiz gave a long lecture on the Islamic Revolution as he served melon juice in his small workroom filled with books on Islam.
He recalled when security officers of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi kicked down his door in 1964, looking for his neighbor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the “imam,” as he is now called here, who was later exiled and returned as the leader of the 1979 revolution.
“When they found him, they put him in a Volkswagen Beetle and sent him off to Turkey,” Ayatollah Feiz said. The revolution produced great men, but “many of those that were with the imam are no longer in politics,” he concluded.
“Only one of the eight candidates is a cleric; that illustrates how much things have changed since then,” he said. “There are many shortcomings. I am not surprised people have become discouraged.”
In an industrial neighborhood just outside Qum, several people said they shared Ayatollah Feiz’s dissatisfaction. Business was slow, said Mehdi, 40, a garage owner who did not want to mention his first name out of fear of retribution.
“We need to fix our economy,” he said. “I love Islam, but how do we fix 100 percent inflation? I’ll vote for anybody with a good plan, but until now I haven’t seen any candidate with clear ideas for the future.”
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.