The organizers of the Aug. 16 rally at the iconic Feizieh Seminary in the holy city of Qom would have probably not anticipated such a widespread backlash. Their event was meant to be “a gathering for economic justice” in Iran, with a large banner reading “Clerical community in solidarity with the people.” Little seemed out of the ordinary.
The controversy arose after a photo showed one participant holding a placard that seemed to reflect a threat against President Hassan Rouhani while also raising suspicion surrounding the death of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It read, "Oh you, whose slogan is negotiations, Farah's pool is awaiting you," referring to Rouhani’s rhetoric about the need for “constructive engagement” with the world. Some hard-liners have alleged that Rafsanjani died in a swimming pool on premises previously belonging to the shah’s regime. The reference to Farah is Farah Pahlavi, the widow of late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The official line about Rafsanjani is that he died of a heart attack.
Still, ever since Rafsanjani’s death in January 2017, rumors and speculation have resurfaced every now and then. Some have claimed that he was killed by extremist elements within the Islamic Republic in a plot to annihilate a close ally of moderate President Rouhani. Mindful of these claims, many are now reading the placard as a confirmation of those reports.
“Some believe that such slogans … include an indirect confession,” wrote the pro-Rouhani newspaper Arman. The first senior cleric to strongly criticize the rally was Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who described it as a “tragedy.” He also called for clarifications from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which later issued a statement slamming the event and calling it “spontaneous.” The statement also stressed that the IRGC will continue to throw its weight behind the Rouhani administration.
Perhaps in response to this statement, Ebtekar — another pro-Reform paper — expressed dismay at the fact that “no one shows accountability for what happened in the Qom gathering.” The article quotes a university professor as saying that those at the gathering were, in a way, confessing to having killed Rafsanjani. “With that slogan, they unintentionally admitted to the murder of Mr. Rafsanjani,” Ayatollah Hashem Bat’haee, a member of the Assembly of Experts, told Jamaran News Agency. Even the conservative Society of Seminary Teachers slammed the rally, saying that “whether intentionally or not, it harmed the reputation of the seminary and the clerical community.”
Feizieh has been the traditional epicenter of official Shiite preaching in Iran, nurturing numerous heavyweight religious scholars. It is also where the founder of the Islamic Republic, late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, delivered his most heated speeches against the authoritarian rule of the shah in 1963. It was after one of those sermons in Feizieh that Khomeini was arrested and later exiled, remaining abroad until his return in 1979.
But now, according to deputy parliament Speaker Ali Motahari, the recent rally showed that “at least a section of the clerical community is suffering from degeneration in social and political views.”
One of those who addressed the Qom gathering was Rahim Pour-Azghadi, a harsh critic of the Rouhani administration and known for his bold and extremist philosophical thinking. The editorial in Reformist daily Ghanoon demanded that anyone behind the rally should be brought to justice so that “reactionaries” would not think they can enjoy immunity. Javan, affiliated with the IRGC, offered only a brief review of the condemnations. Vatan-e Emrouz and Kayhan, two major conservative papers, remained silent.
Also silent on the matter has been the highly conservative member of the seminary, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, known as the ideological father and influential supporter of Iran’s new generation of fundamentalist clerics.