Meet the ayatollahs

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in again as president amid
further protests, Juan Cole, one of the

When Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insisted on 31 July that his relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was "like that of a father and son", he drew attention not only to apparent tensions between himself and Khamenei, but to the deep fissures that have opened up in Iranian politics since the disputed 12 June presidential election and subsequent demonstrations. The opposition and the regime are still dancing a dangerous tango of protest and repression, with the theocracy's leading clerics lining up on either side. In a Friday prayers sermon at the end of June, the fiery Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami commanded: "Anybody who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction." In contrast, the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was put under house arrest between 1997 and 2003 for questioning the regime, said that no one in his right mind could have believed that Ahmadinejad won the election. He observed: "A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy." So who are the leading senior clerics influencing Iran today, and whose support for - or opposition to - the protesters could determine the country's future?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Leader of the 1979 revolution and first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran ­(died 1989)

From the mid-1960s, Khomeini had two main goals. The first was the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was regarded by many Iranians as slavish to American interests. Khomeini attempted to lead a religious uprising against the shah in 1963, but he was arrested and sent into exile. He went to Turkey briefly, and then settled in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where he taught and wrote, and ended up leading the opposition from Paris. When his 1978-79 revolution finally cast down the Peacock Throne, Khomeini pronounced checkmate.

His other goal was to turn Shia Islam from an informal relationship between believers and clerics into a system of government. He reinterpreted early Islamic texts to argue that seminary-trained clergy should be guardians over the whole of society, claiming that the word for mediator (hakam),often used for clerics, is from the same root as the term for ruler (hakim).

On his return to Iran in 1979, Khomeini turned his theory into a strict Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, creating the office of supreme leader, the clerical dictator who stands at the apex of the system, subordinating the elected president and parliament to himself. The 86 members of the Assembly of Experts are all clerics, as are the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians (which decides what bills may become law and who may run for president or parliament). The clerics of the 28-man Expediency Council are charged with mediating conflicts between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, and advising the supreme leader.

Khomeini initially faced opposition to his new orthodoxy from grand ayatollahs senior to him, especially outside of Iran - but ever since it was made illegal inside the Islamic Republic to question the guardianship, only ayatollahs with the stomach for trouble have done so openly. However, discontent with the doctrine is re­putedly widespread. Although some ayatollahs hold critical posts in governmental institutions, many of the most important office-holders are not esteemed for their erudition.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
President of Iran from 1981-89 and Supreme Leader since 1989

When Khomeini died, the then president, Ali Khamenei, was promoted to Supreme Leader. He had impeccable revolutionary credentials, having been a lifelong activist against the shah and a principal player in the rise of the Islamic Republic. But although he was a cleric, he was hardly scholarly or widely respected, and he was somewhat implausibly declared an ayatollah so he could take up the post of Supreme Leader.

Khamenei has never attracted a wide personal following as a jurist and public mentor on the practice of Islamic law, and his frankly partisan support of President Ahmadinejad, and sign-off of election results that many or most Iranians found dubious, has deeply damaged the authority of his position. On 19 June, in the Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University, he insisted that he would not yield in the face of the protests, and warned against further agitation. The next day, the regime cracked down hard. Khamenei may be able to deploy the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij to quell the popular disturbances for now, but in doing so he risks losing the consent of the governed.

Khamenei may be Supreme Leader, but in purely religious authority it is believed he is outranked by more than two dozen grand ayatollahs. They may be among the chief beneficiaries of the damage to the Supreme Leader's standing, and a shift in public support towards the more reform-minded among them could signal a sea change in Iranian politics.

Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari
Critic of Khomeini's theory of clerical rule (died 1986)

Shariatmadari helped save his rival Khomeini from the shah's firing squad in 1963 by recognising him as a grand ayatollah (which made him, according to Iran's constitution, immune from execution). When Khomeini became supreme leader, Shariatmadari called for free popular elections and disagreed with Khomeini's system of government and the dictatorial powers he assumed.

In response, Khomeini's regime appears to have manufactured a case against the mild-mannered, elderly Shariatmadari, accusing him of colluding with counter-revolutionaries to instigate a violent insurgency. He was made to confess and apologise on television, then consigned to
house arrest until his death in 1986. Clerics were prevented from attending his funeral prayer, drawing criticisms from Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri
Former heir apparent of Khomeini-turned-arch-critic

A leader of the 1979 revolution, Montazeri was originally designated as Khomeini's successor. In 1987, after the daughter of a friend falsely accused of sympathising with the People's Mujahedin of Iran was summarily executed, Montazeri spoke out against the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and Khomeini angrily dismissed him as heir apparent. Montazeri went on to create a body of writing that challenged Khomeini's theory of clerical rule, placing him in conflict with the new Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who put him under house arrest for six years. He has been vigorous in his support for the protesters since the election in June. On 8 July, he posted on his website a call to "protest the improper performance of official repression". He also called for three days of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and other demonstrators.

Ayatollah Yousuf Sanei
Head of the Council of Guardians until 1988, now a leading reformer

A resident, like Montazeri, of the holy city of Qom, Sanei has a lifetime of achievements in scholarship and teaching. Since retiring from the Council of Guardians, he has been active as one of roughly 29 grand ayatollahs who are informal opinion leaders, and has issued liberal fatwas on abortion and on women holding political office. He has met other grand ayatollahs to find ways of resolving the recent conflict, an implicit rebuke of Khamenei. Sanei has pointed out that many Iranians had understandable doubts about the election outcome, given the lack of transparency in the process, and he has called on the authorities to honour human rights. On his website, he says: "Such deceit and oppression should not cause despair and hopelessness in the people's path to standing up for their religious and legal rights and in their endeavour to ensure sovereignty over their own destiny."

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-YazdiMember of the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts

A highly influential ultra-conservative theologian who is said to be particularly close to Ahmadinejad, Mesbah-Yazdi came out of the now-bannedHojjatieh movement in modern Shia Islam, which has a special animus against the Baha'i religion and Sunni Muslims. This sectarian group believes that the messiah of Islam, the Mahdi, will come soon, and that dramatic social action might help speed his advent.

Despite his genial smile, Mesbah-Yazdi is a diehard opponent of the reform movement, and dismisses the more democratic aspects of the
Islamic Republic as unimportant compared to clerical authority. Of the recent protests, he said: "Anybody resisting against the ruling system will be broken."

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati
Chairman of the Council of Guardians

Sanei's successor as chairman of the Council of Guardians, the scrawny but fiery Jannati, spearheaded the conservative charge against the rising reform faction from 1997. In 2004, he excluded some 3,500 candidates from running for parliament and other offices on the grounds that they were too liberal. He has been a strong backer of Ahmadinejad, and rejected opposition charges of ballot tampering in the presidential election. He blamed the subsequent unrest on British intelligence activities orchestrated from the UK's embassy in Tehran, and pledged to put embassy employees of Iranian extraction on trial for sedition.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Iraq's leading Shia cleric

Iranian-born Sistani is the most widely followed grand ayatollah among Shias outside Iran, and also has a following in Iran itself. He is known to reject Khomeini's theory of the rule of the clerics, preferring that they instead give informal religious guidance to democratically elected lay leaders; as a result, Shia Iraq has not followed the Iranian political model. Sistani keeps a low profile in politics, and has so far declined to intervene directly in Iran's crisis.

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Juan Cole is the Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of "Engaging the Muslim World" (Palgrave Macmillan). He writes for the blog Informed Comment (www.juancole.com)

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