A developing theological controversy in Iran is causing a major rift among the country's political and theological elites, who together control the chief levers of state in the Islamic Republic. Over the near term, the doctrinal dispute raises questions about the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's neo-conservative president.
Conservative/traditionalist clerics welcomed the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, who campaigned on a back-to-basics message, aiming to reinvigorate the social and religious principles that drove the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Conservative clerics back then felt that the eight-year presidency of reform-minded Mohammad Khatami had dangerously diluted religion's role in policy making, leading to a loosening of political and social strictures, and, therefore, greatly reducing the mullahs' influence over society.
The widely held assumption among the traditionalist clergy in 2005 was that Ahmadinejad's policy agenda would restore the clerical class to its preeminent role in society. In the three years since his election, however, Ahmadinejad has largely failed to deliver on his economic promises. And while the traditionalist clergy has regained some of its lost influence, many clerics remain skeptical about the rise in influence of the Revolutionary Guards. Both current and former guards commanders have assumed important roles in the state and economy.
By all accounts Ahmadinejad is a devout believer who still maintains an austere lifestyle in keeping with a conservative approach to religion. But his views on religion are not exactly traditional. For example, he has been known to kiss the hands of women in public, an action that conservatives consider taboo. Despite the Ahmadinejad administration's religious fervor, "many clerics are not necessarily overjoyed with his presidency," said a Shi'a religious scholar in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity. "For one thing, it has not translated into tangible political benefits for most of the traditionalists.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.