Cover Story
Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

Battle within

For years Iran has been hostile to the West and Arab neighbors. Now with election results in question and unrest lingering, the fight for the future of the Islamic republic resides with its own

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

In a long narrow conference room in Qom, the religious center for Iran's Shiite Muslims, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sits surrounded by about a dozen of Iran's ruling ayatollahs who make up the Council of Guardians. It is the day after June 12 elections, and he is preparing to mobilize the plainclothes paramilitary group known as basiji to counter rapidly multiplying street demonstrations.

Yet all the while, the 52-year-old, a former mayor of Tehran, civil engineering academic, and son of a blacksmith, is talking into his shirt. He mumbles, his face barely moving, looking downcast, tired, and not at all like someone who just won an election.

This is not the fiery Ahmadinejad, who in April prompted delegates from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Italy to walk out of a UN conference on racism. The boycott erupted when he spoke of the Holocaust as "the pretext of Jewish sufferings" used by the UN Security Council to create "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine."

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Nor is this the jocular Ahmadinejad (though it looks like he is wearing the same jacket) who parried questions about his vow to wipe Israel off the map from 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace in 2006 with a smile and "I will get to that."

Nor is this the hectoring Ahmadinejad who once said of former President George W. Bush: "You shouldn't sit in a room, a dark room, and hatch plots. And because of your plots, many thousands of people are killed."

The Ahmadinejad who is sitting in this dark room hatching plots is on this day an abject man. When he looks up, it is usually to his right, where Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei is seated, as if for approval.

Ahmadinejad to many may look like a ruthless dictator who just voted himself back into office. He may have defeated the street favorite, 67-year-old Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is billed an Islamic reformer. But in the conference room at Qom, Ahmadinejad is a man insiders say recognizes that his political future is tied to the ruling Shiite clerics, particularly Khamenei. And as confrontation with the Iranian people has widened and deepened, the Council of Guardians knows its legitimacy as much as election balloting is in doubt.

Tehran since mid-June saw a million-plus demonstrators pouring into its streets to protest Ahmadinejad's June 12 victory. Clashes with police and paramilitary units culminated on June 20 in the deaths of at least 20 civilians and the disappearances of hundreds more. Ahmadinejad drew his tens of thousands, but then Mousavi drew his hundreds of thousands.

As the opposition gathered force, authorities wobbled: Khamenei's June 13 "divine assessment" of Ahmadinejad as the winner was followed by Khamenei's call for an election probe two days later. That turned into a stern ruling June 19 that election results will stand, and Khamenei held that ground even after the Council of Guardians discovered that votes exceeded the number of voters in 50 districts. On June 29 after a very partial recount, the council declared Ahmadinejad the official winner.

But while Tehran has been where the action is, Qom is the nerve center in the Islamic republic's biggest internal crisis since the revolution that brought it to power 30 years ago. Guardian Council meetings like the one June 13-captured on videotape and broadcast via YouTube-have been frequent.

But they are not the only clerical sessions in Qom. As demonstrations spread following the election, senior ayatollahs met separately to discuss changes to the structure of the Iranian state. News network Al Arabiya reported that a foreigner has attended too: Jawad al-Shahristana, supreme representative of Iraq's Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Sistani, 79, is the preeminent Shiite cleric in Iraq and some say around the world. Born in Iran but of Arab descent, he has ties to the Qom clerics but rarely if ever intervenes in affairs of state.

"Arabs are Arabs and Persians are Persians," said Sasan Tavassoli, a former Iranian Shiite who became a Christian in 1985. "For the average Iranian he has no role." But these are not average times, and the presence of Sistani's attaché in Qom indicates that lingering unrest at bottom is less about the legitimacy of Iran's vote and more about the future of its theocracy.

"This is an intra-Islamic fight," said Tavassoli, who now serves as a pastor in the Iranian Presbyterian Church. "How can this country be both Islamic and republic? How can it be ruled both by divine law and the votes of the people?"

At least five of Qom's 14 senior ayatollahs appear to have sided with protesters and Mousavi. The most prominent among them is Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, 85, once presumed heir to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.


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