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Confrontation between Rouhani, hard-line clerics heats up

Hard-line clerics rail against Iran’s moderate president over his remarks in favor of freedom of speech.
SOCHI, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER, 22 (RUSSIA OUT)  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during Russian-Iranian-Turkish talks at Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November,22,2017. Presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran have gathered in Sochi to talk on Syrian war conflict. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has entered a new phase in his confrontation with hard-line clergymen over a number of issues after the recent unrest across the country.

On Jan. 13, Tehran Friday prayer leader Kazem Sedighi, a hard-liner, reacted to the protests, saying, “The nation’s gathering [against the unrest] turned into a sea and cleaned the rubbish.” This description of the protesters as rubbish led to a series of criticisms from moderate and Reformist figures and consequently the president.

“A number of people protested in the streets; whoever protests is ‘dirt and dust’ or cows or calves or rubbish? Why do you speak like this? Why do you insult and treat society rudely?” Rouhani said in a direct reference to Sedighi on Jan. 14.

The Iranian president added, “You should speak accurately. Our nation is a big nation. There was a protest and it ended.”

Of note, following his disputed re-election in 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked protesters by dismissing those who alleged vote fraud as "dirt and dust."

Meanwhile, Rouhani has come under attack for his remarks that no one is above criticism, not even the 12th Shiite imam, the Mahdi. Twelver Shiite Islam holds that the Mahdi is in a state referred to as the "greater occultation" and is waiting to reappear to rule the world. 

In a speech believed to have been influenced by the protests across Iran, Rouhani sought not to dismiss the protesters, saying Jan. 8, “Everyone should be criticized and there is no exception [to this principle]. All the officials in the country can be criticized. No one in the country is infallible. If one day the Hidden Imam [Mahdi] reappears, then we can criticize [him] too. … The Prophet [Muhammad] allowed [others] to criticize him. We don’t have anyone above the prophet in history.”

Following these remarks, hard-line clerics said that criticizing Shiite imams, who are deemed infallible, would in effect mean that they are not in fact infallible. Rouhani’s defenders, however, said the president was trying to say that people can question imams in order to get an answer, just as the president and other officials in Iran can be questioned. Moderate Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian said Jan. 15, “The goal of Mr. Rouhani in his recent remarks involving the critique of the infallible imams wasn’t equivalent to rejecting them, but rather meant the possibility of questioning them.”

In marked contrast, the influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, headed by powerful cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, issued a statement Jan. 14 saying the rejection of Muhammad and the imams’ infallibility "is in explicit opposition to Islam and the Shiite faith. … We strongly recommend that some officials refrain from entering issues related to [people’s] beliefs in their speeches.”

Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, considered to be the spiritual father of the hard-liners — including conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election — tweeted Jan. 15, “They are saying that people can criticize the infallible imams. … They said this not in [a distant country] but in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now, with the presence of such [figures on the public stage], how much more should the Hidden Imam [Mahdi] suffer?”

Other hard-line and conservative clerics have joined the attacks on Rouhani. Mohsen Araki, a hard-line cleric, said Jan. 14, “Apparently, you have forgotten what you studied [at the seminary] when you were young. It is better now for you to focus on politics. When you don’t have the necessary knowledge, it is better to leave people’s beliefs alone.”

Following the ruckus over his remarks, the president’s office issued a statement Jan. 15 saying he never said the Shiite imams must be criticized. 

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