A group of clerics issued a letter late Saturday night calling the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a “dictator” and demanding his removal. The letter was published on various reformist websites, and follows a letter submitted to the Assembly of Experts by a group of former lawmakers last week calling the Supreme Leader’s qualifications into question. The lack of signatures may “dilute” the the clerics’ legitimacy, but the New York Times reports two Iranian experts have verified the letter’s authenticity.
The letters do not pose any real threat to Ayatollah Khamenei, who retains the loyalty of the security services and most of the political elite. The clerical establishment is heavily dependent on him, and scarcely any member would dare challenge him openly.
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Still, the verbal attacks illustrate the erosion of a powerful taboo. Long unquestioned, Ayatollah Khamenei’s status as a neutral arbiter and Islamic figurehead have suffered in the weeks since he blessed the June 12 presidential election, which many Iranians believe was rigged. The harsh crackdown on street protests that followed has only deepened public anger with him. In recent days the phrase “death to Khamenei” has begun appearing in graffiti on Tehran walls, a phrase that would have been almost unimaginable not long ago.
In their 11-page letter, the clerics blamed Ayatollah Khamenei for the violence after the elections, in which dozens of people, and possibly many more, were killed.
They accused him of turning the Revolutionary Guards into “his own private guard, and the media into an instrument to defend and propagate him.”
The clerics wrote that fear of Ayatollah Khamenei made it impossible for them to sign their names: “there is such a dictatorship that we, as defenders of religion who are also close to public officials, have to practice Taqieh,” a reference to a Shiite practice of lying or concealment for expediency.
Initially, some Iran experts seemed skeptical about the letter’s origins, but a prominent Iranian cleric and a former lawmaker said on Sunday that they had spoken to some of the authors and had no doubt the letter was genuine.
The cleric who said he had spoken to the authors said they number several dozen, and are mostly midranking figures from Qum, Isfahan and Mashhad, where Iran’s major seminaries are located. The cleric — who spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reasons as the letter’s authors — said he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to sign the letter.
“The pressure on clerics in Qum is much worse than the pressure on activists because the establishment is afraid that if they say anything they can turn the more traditional sectors of society against the regime,” the cleric said.