On Iran, look to Qom for the next breaking story (updated)

With tens of thousands of police, Revolutionary Guards, and paramilitary Basij's on the streets of Tehran, mass protests of the kind we saw earlier in the week are, for the moment, not possible.

Demonstrating very effective crowd control techniques - along with a brutality that shocked the world - the regime's strategy apparently worked fairly well. Any area where people began to mass, they sent a flying wedge of riot police (probably Rev Guards dressed in police gear) straight into the people and beat as many as they could, as hard as they could, as long as they could. In this way, they prevented tens of thousands from forming in order to protest.

Estimates of police and Guards deployed range from 25,000 to 60,000 in Tehran alone. And the Basij were busy overnight, keeping the pressure on reformists by carrying off several high profile home invasions in richer neighborhoods while scouring hospitals for people injured during the clashes.

That latter activity is being enthusiastically carried out as there have been reports that they are dragging people out of the hospitals and taking them to the notorious Evin Prison where, as one wag put it, "waterboarding will be the least that they do."

Hossein Mousavi has issued another letter, asking people to go on strike if he is arrested. He says he is "prepared for martyrdom" which, given Khamenei's threat during his speech on Friday to hold him directly responsible for any blood spilled, might be a prescient statement.

So with no mass demonstrations possible at the moment, what next?

Look for a shocker coming out of the holy city of Qom where former President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani has reportedly been holed up with what we might loosely refer to as a kind of Shia "college of cardinals" since early this week. (I admit it is not the best analogy but the I am trying to impart a sense of the religious influence these mullahs have on Shias.) This from Nico Pitney who has been doing a bang up job at Huffpo in liveblogging events:

6:00 PM ET -- Where is Rafsanjani? "According to an online reformist news source Rooyeh, Rafsanjani has been in Qom meeting some members of Council of Experts and a representative of Ayatollah Sistani.

According to the source that asked to remain anonymous, during this meeting they recounted memories of the days of the Revolution.
A reasonable purpose of these meetings, according to the source, is that Rafsanjani is looking for a majority to possibly call for Ahmadinejad's resignation.

As one reader points out, Sistani is "one of the most respected Grand Ayatollahs within Shia Islam in the world. He's Iranian (from Mashhad, same city as Khamenei), but spends most time in Najaf/Karbala in Iraq."

The Shia clerics are not a monolithic bloc. And the clerics in Qom may hold the key to breaking this situation wide open.

There is no love lost among many of the clerics in Qom and Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. The sticking point is the "Grand" designation for Khamenei's clerical position. There are many clerics in Qom who believe the idea that Khamenei has that title - which denotes a piety and scholarly achievement that few attain - to be nonsense . Author and scholar Kamil Pasha points us to veteran Middle East reporter Robin Wright's article up at Huffington Post:

The position of supreme leader has been controversial since it was created in the chaotic early days of the revolution to deal with internal squabbling. After his return from exile, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khameini had originally returned to the religious center of Qom, but was forced to move back to Tehran as disputes among the fractious coalition that ousted the last shah began to fall apart.

Many of the Shiite clerics in Qom never embraced the idea of either a supreme leader or a central role for clerics in the new Islamic republic. Iran's revolution represented not just a political upheaval. It was also a revolution within Shiism, which for 14 centuries had prohibited a clerical role in politics. With clerics taking over government, many senior Shiite clerics feared that Islam would end up being tainted by the human flaws of the state.

The current crisis has effectively revived that debate -- and deepened the divide between the government and the Shiite clergy as well as with the public. The government includes many clerical institutions, including the 12-member Council of Guardians, the 86-member Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. But not even all of its members are happy with the election.

More importantly, senior clerics in Qom have noticeably failed to either endorse the election results or embrace Ahmadinejad, while long-time critics within the clergy used the crisis to encourage resistance to the supreme leader's dictates.

The fact that Rafsanjani is in Qom could mean many things. He may be hiding out there, waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before leaping. Or, as Pitney reports, he may be trying to get these respected clerics in Iran's holiest city to speak with one voice on the election fraud and Khamenei's role in government. A strong, unified statement coming from Qom might spell curtains for both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

While Rafsanjani himself has been absent from view, his daughter spoke out strongly for the reformists. He even rated some heavy criticism from his old friend Khamenei on Friday, although he stopped short of warning the powerful Rafsanjani.

A couple of Grand Ayatollahs in Qom have already come out in favor of the protests. Robin Wright:

Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who was originally designated to become supreme leader until he criticized the regime's excesses in 1989, dismissed the election results and called on "everyone" to continue "reclaiming their dues" in calm protests. He also issued a warning to Iran's security forces not to accept government orders that might eventually condemn them "before God."

"Today censorship and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth," said Montazeri. "I pray for the greatness of the Iranian people."

Others have also bestowed legitimacy on the protests. Grand Ayatollah Saanei -- one of only about a dozen who hold that position -- pronounced Ahmadinejad's presidency illegitimate.

Neither man weilds much political influence. But if Qom's clerical leadership calls on Khamenei to resign (thus delegitimzing his role as "Supreme Leader" even more), this would cause a crisis in government - a near civil war - as the clerical establishment would likely be ripped in two. It would paralyze the government and perhaps even split the security forces.

Because of that - and because many of the clerics in Qom have shown a great reluctance to involve themselves too heavily in politics - such a strong statement might not be forthcoming. But don't count Rafsanjani out. He has a lot of friends in very powerful places. If he decides to risk a confrontation with Khamenei (him being a candidate to replace him although the reformers would take a dim view of that), anything is possible.

So I would look to Qom for the next big story in the Iranian revolution. Whether the blood spilled yesterday is enough to convince the religious in Iran to replace Khamenei is a question that will probably be answered shortly. They will either issue a call for his resignation, or Rafsanjani will emerge empty handed.  The old revolutionary and kleptocrat will try to trim events to fulfill his ambitions. But in the process, he just may free Iran from the grip of the fascists.


AP is reporting
the arrest of Rafsanjani's daughter (mentioned above) and 4 other relatives of the powerful former president.

Um...they're not being very subtle, are they? They know full well what Rafsanjani is up to and are making it clear to him that there will be consequences unless he ceases what he is doing.

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