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Several thousand Iranians marched on Tehran University today in protest of the election, on the anniversary of a student protest in 1999:

The demonstration is taking place on the 10th anniversary of a student uprising that, at the time, posed the biggest threat to the Islamic regime since its inception in 1979.

The protesters are using the anniversary to resume demonstrations against the outcome of the June 12 presidential election.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people crowded the streets and headed toward Tehran University, the site of the 1999 student uprising.

Several protesters were hit on the arms and backs by the Basij, the journalist reported. The militia tried to persuade one man, whose face was bleeding, to get into an ambulance, but he refused.

Some of the protesters shouted “Allah u Akbar,” or “God is Great” and “Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein” referring to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi

The remarkable thing here is how the protest movement has embraced it’s Islamic identity, contrary to the Western idea that democracy must be secular in nature. The chant of “Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein” is not just a reference to Moussavi but also to the martyred Imam Husain AS whose death in Karbala centuries ago forms the core of Shi’a spiritual identity. In addition, at night the chant of “Allahu Akhbar” rings out from the rooftops in many neighborhoods in Tehran – a simple chant and appeal to the highest power for succor, but also a rallying cry.

These are of course a grassroots expression and invocation of faith by the protest movement, but it’s worth noting that the highest levels of clergy are also moving against the regime as well. Western pundits often lump Iran’s government into one faceless mass, “the mullahs”, but the actual clerical establishment in the city of Qom, and the Council of Experts (which has the power to remove the Supreme Leader Khamenei) are separate entities. The clerical establishment in Qom has become quite explicit in their critique of Ahmadinejad and Khamanei, seriously undermining the latters’ claim to divine right to rule:

An important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.

[…] The clerics’ statement chastised the leadership for failing to adequately study complaints of vote rigging and lashed out at the use of force in crushing huge public protests.

It even directly criticized the Guardian Council, the powerful group of clerics charged with certifying elections.

“Is it possible to consider the results of the election as legitimate by merely the validation of the Guardian Council?” the association said.

Perhaps more threatening to the supreme leader, the committee called on other clerics to join the fight against the government’s refusal to adequately reconsider the charges of voter fraud. The committee invoked powerful imagery, comparing the 20 protesters killed during demonstrations with the martyrs who died in the early days of the revolution and the war with Iraq, asking other clerics to save what it called “the dignity that was earned with the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs.”

A much more strident critique of Khamanei was also issued by a very conservative cleric, which lambasts the way in whihich the brutal crackdown has eroded the legitimacy of the clerical establishment:

“Khamenei, your recent actions and behavior has brought shame to us clerics. Our image in the streets and bazaars has been tarnished as everyone is placing us in the same category as Ahmadinejad.”

“Khamenei, you are wrong, your actions are wrong. I believe in the velayat e fagih more than you.”

“I’m not preaching these messages so that I could be associated with the West. I loathe the West and will fight to the last drop of my blood before I or my land succumbs to the West. On the contrary, I’m preaching these messages on the count that the respect for our profession is gone.”

“Young people are not praying anymore, whose fault is that? It is your fault Mr. Khamenei, it’s your fault for placing us in the same line as that lunatic Ahmadinejad.”

“Ahmadinejad is nobody, you should congregate with us instead of him.”

As noted, this rant is by Haddi Ghaffari, who is not reformist by any means – he played an instrumental role n the creation of Hezbollah.

All of this is likely the partial result of the involvement of former Iranian President, and billionaire, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a political rival of Khamanei and who sits on the Council of Experts. Twenty years ago, Rafsanjani had proposed replacing the Supreme Leader position with a Council of Three, and it is probable that he is maneuvering towards the same outcome now. One anonymous Iranian journalist reports:

According to a well-placed source in the holy city of Qom, Rafsanjani is working furiously behind the scenes to call for an emergency meeting of the Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts-the elite all-cleric body that can unseat the Supreme Leader or dilute his prerogatives. The juridical case against Khamenei would involve several counts. First, he would be charged with countenancing a coup d’état-albeit a bloodless one-without consulting with the Khobregan. Second, he would stand accused of deceitfully plotting to oust Rafsanjani-who is the Khobregan chairman and nominally the country’s third-most-important authority-from his positions of power. Third, he would be said to have threatened the very stability of the republic with his ambition and recklessness.

Reza Aslan also has written about Rafsanjani’s efforts at wooing Qom:

Reliable sources in Iran are suggesting that a possible compromise to put an end to the violent uprising that has rocked Iran for the past two weeks may be in the works. I have previously reported that the second most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts (the body with the power to choose and dismiss the supreme leader) is in the city of Qom-the country’s religious center-trying to rally enough votes from his fellow assembly members to remove the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from power. News out of Iran suggests that he may be succeeding. At the very least, it seems he may have gained enough support from the clerical establishment to force a compromise from Khamenei, one that would entail a runoff election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Even the political leadership is deeply divided over the political crackdown – Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the leaders of the original Iranian revolution in 1979 and one-time designated successor to Ayatollah Khomenei before a falling out (thus making him another bitter rival to Ayatollah Khamanei, who became Supremem Leader instead of Montazeri), published a scathing letter denouncing the crackdown (PDF) and the tactics of using Basij thugs against the people:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic…I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, [they] cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then [asked the] authorities…”was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword

The rhetoric here is, literally, revolutionary – comparing the regime to the Shah, and invoking the example of the Prophet and Imam Ali as a recrimination. This is the kind of thing that can’t be unsaid – and Montazeri has done this before.

The key here is that the rhetoric of Islam is being merged with the rhetoric of reform. As Reihan Salaam optimistically speculated a few weeks ago, there’s a real possibility – though no guarantee – that we might see a new Iranian Republic emerge which is a true synthesis of Islam and democracy. I actually speculated along much the same lines years ago, noting that the biggest threat to the present regime was indeed a mass nonviolent protest movement within the framework of Islam – and invoked verse 2:256 from the Qur’an. As far back as 2002, the blogsphere had an Open Letter to Iran which I also posted to my blog in both Farsi and English. The path that Iran is on right now is not conceptually new, just untried. It’s about time.

Related: Paul Raushenbush comments over at Progressive Revival. Also, the National Iranian American Council has an indispensable blog for keeping up to date on these internal developments.

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