While Ruhollah Khomeini was alive, doubts about his doctrine of clerical rule were tempered by his clerical credentials. The same is not true of his successor Ali Khamenei, only a middle-ranking cleric when he was appointed supreme leader in 1989. 'Senior clerics treat his theological pronouncements with disdain,' says Nadeem Kazmi, of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, a charity with close links to the apolitical Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf.
But what Ayatollah Khamenei lacks in credentials, he has made up for in surveillance, such as increased attempts to bring Qom's independent seminaries under state control. Nobody knows how many dissenting clerics have been executed by special clerical courts, although some sources put the figure at 60 since 1989.
'If Qom remains under the same kind of oppressive atmosphere, everyone will come to Najaf,' Seyyed Hussein Khomeini said on Tuesday.
In a recent book on Iran's ruling elite, German Iranian scholar Wilfried Buchta goes further. 'A Shia grand ayatollah from outside the Iranian system of power..., could issue fatwas [legal judgments] on religious-social matters that run counter to Khamenei's political line,' he writes. 'If this should happen, it could bring the whole system to the verge of breakdown.'
Following a series of high-level clerical defections in recent years, some Iranian analysts see signs that dissatisfaction in Iran has spread to traditionally pro-regime clerics. But most Iranians doubt the clerics will transform passive opposition into active revolt. 'If we're going to depend on them, we have a long wait on our hands,' says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, law professor at the Supreme National Defense University in Tehran. The political editor of reformist daily Etemad, Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi, agrees. 'Even if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stood up in Najaf and criticized the Iranian regime, which he won't, nobody would listen to him.'
But this is north Tehran, where students brandish copies of Nietzsche and whisper 'God is dead' behind closed doors. While their more secular reform movement seems deadlocked, more traditionally minded Iranians may be willing to listen to clerics in Iraq who advocate separation of mosque and state.
I have blogged several times on the monolithic view of the Shi'a. If there is a Shi'a monolith its centre is in Najaf, not Qom or Tehran, and its leaders are people like Grand Ayatollah Sistani. the intellectual tradition in Najaf is different. I do not see any serious prospect f someone very junior in the hierarchy, such as al-Sadr, converting his family name into real standing among the Iraqi Shi'a. I do however, see real prospects of disagreement between the Najaf authorities and Khamenei.
In today's Age we read:
Professor Carlyle Thayer, from the Australian Defence College, in a paper two weeks ago to the Institute of South-East Asian Studies, expressed concern that the public debate on global terrorism had been dominated by international terrorism experts rather than by country specialists. This had led to adoption by regional security specialists of a homogenised framework for dealing with terror threats, he said.
The debate on Iraq is not even being dominated by global security views against country specialists. It is dominated by US neoconservatives who know little about Iraq and nothing about Shi'a history. If these people are confronted by facts on the ground they spin them away. If they are confronted with their own previous statements they spin those away as well.
In The unconscious civilization John Ralston Saul wrote:
Here was the beginning of modern ideology and absolutism. The Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks, the Fascists, and now the free marketeers, are all the direct descendants of predestination and the Jesuits. They are the chosen few � the minority who have the truth and therefore have the right to impose it by whatever means
The neoconservative policy now being executed in Iraq takes no account of the history on the facts on the ground because even admitting that culture or opinion can make a difference would destroy their nonsensical farrago of half-truths and whole lies. Their purpose is not the truth but quick victory in glib debate. They are the sole possessors of truth and even admitting argument about their case destroys it.