Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameni, goes to Qom today. That doesn’t sound like a front page story, but this could be a hugely important milestone in Iran’s struggle to unwind the extremism of the 1979 revolution.
Qom is the religious center of Iran, the university where it’s religious leaders study and live. During the 2009 election protests, after President Ahmadinejad claimed an implausible victory, the Ayatollahs of Qom objected. Ayatollah Khameni invoked his religious authority to quell protests, and not only did the public not buckle under, the Ayatollahs in Qom challenged his use of Velayat-e Faqih (supreme religious authority) for that purpose.
The Ayatollahs are unlikely defenders of liberty, but they refused to be party to the use of their religious establishment to condone repression. And they continue to question the Supreme Leader’s religious legitimacy, caveating Velayat-e Faqih for the first time and opposing the government using violence against its own people. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri even claimed that “a government not respecting the people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy.” That actually is news, a huge break with the past. Iran’s religious establishment finding its voice and defending the integrity of representative government from authoritarian manipulation may be an even more important development than the democratic resistance itself in Iran.
The middle east would be a much less dangerous place – especially for its own people – if Iran’s model of Velayat-e Faqih were moderated. Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq has demonstrated an alternative, in which religion shapes public life without dictating political outcomes. The Ayatollahs in Qom are denying religious support to political power unless the people in power act in conformity with their values. This is a type of social compact recognizable to Americans, a valuable check on power by civil society. Let us hope Ayatollah Khameni has a rough time of it today in Qom.