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Standoff leaves Iran clerics on sidelines
Associated Press Fri May 26, 2006
Fri May 26, 2006 19:52

Standoff leaves Iran clerics on sidelines By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Fri May 26, 2006 1:51 PM ET

Iran's most senior clerics filled a lecture hall this month to hear government-picked nuclear experts give a layman's tutorial on reactors, uranium enrichment and what it means for Iran. It also was a lesson in who is advising and guiding Iran's theocrats at one the most critical periods since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The ranks of ayatollahs and lesser clerics the unofficial brain trust of the Islamic regime find themselves increasingly sidelined as Iran's priorities shift from internal confrontations with pro-reform groups to geopolitical brinksmanship.

The theocracy is now tuned to other voices, who speak the language of technology and strategy: nuclear engineers, international negotiators and military planners led by the Revolutionary Guard.

"It is no longer just about religion, culture and Islamic identity," said Issa Saharkhiz, a Tehran-based analyst and activist for press freedoms. "The nuclear crisis is forcing the leaders to think and act differently."

Iran's all-powerful religious cadre, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is now allowing a complex and pragmatic foreign policy one that's even sent signals of the possibility of direct talks with the United States after a nearly 27-year diplomatic freeze.

But at home, rank-and-file clerics still hold considerable sway. The election last year of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave hard-liners a direct pipeline to government and parliament, including strong influence over a bill to encourage Islamic-style clothing.

"The clerics are facing a serious identify crisis," said Alireza Nourizadeh, head researcher at the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. "They want to be part of this critical debate on the nuclear program and maintain their prestige. They just don't have what's needed for the moment."

That's felt most strongly in Qom, 80 miles southwest of Tehran, whose seminarians and mosques were nerve centers of the revolution and continued as key advisers under the concept of "valeyat-e-faqih," or rule by Islamic jurisprudence.

But Iranian leaders are not seeking the clerics' advice on the nuclear showdown. In a stunning role reversal, the clerics instead have sat through lectures by political affairs analysts and nuclear experts on what's best for the nation.

And for the first time, no one on the international stage for Iran is wearing a turban.

Instead, the team of nuclear negotiators is led by Ali Larijani, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who was a presidential candidate last year. Ahmadinejad who has bombarded the West with insults and mockery became the first non-cleric in the office since the early years of the revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drove out rivals and consolidated power.

That doesn't mean religious authorities are no longer pulling the strings. Khamenei and his inner circle remain the ultimate authority and must approve all important initiatives, including Ahmadinejad's recent letter to President Bush.

"We're seeing the secularization of Iran's foreign policy," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iranian affairs expert at Syracuse University. "The nuclear crisis has forced Iran to deal with the world in realist terms, not in the purely religious views of the clerics. They've been pushed into the background."

In Qom the center of Shiite Muslim study and scholarship in Iran the nuclear debate has mostly adhered closely to Khamenei's declarations that peaceful nuclear power is a national right, but that nuclear weapons are against Islamic principles. Those views are based on Quranic interpretations that include warnings against uncontrollable war and long-term damage to the environment.

"The most important thing the clerics can do is clarify what's acceptable under Islamic teaching," said Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani, a professor of Islamic law in Qom. "Nuclear weapons cannot be used in an offensive or a defensive war."

There's a well-known contradiction: Muslim Pakistan has nuclear arms. And some fringe scholars associated with hard-line clerics have said that Iran has a right to develop atomic weapons to counter other nuclear powers. In the Middle East, that means Israeli, which is widely believed to have the sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

"Maybe it's not acceptable in Islam," said Hadavi, "but in (some) circumstances, there could be special threats."

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a prominent Qom scholar, sees the clerics caught in a "dual position."

"On one hand, we must protect this national issue of peaceful nuclear power," he said. "But we also have to be unified to make sure we don't disrupt the delicate international situation of Iran."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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