Ideological battle of ayatollahs seems certain to resurface


Our plane was moving slowly towards its parking spot at Mehrabad Airport when people began swarming out of cars and buses towards the aircraft. In the darkness, I could make out hundreds of them running alongside the Airbus - women in Islamic garb and men, some wearing Revolutionary Guard uniforms.

We waited for 30 minutes on the tarmac while the stewardess tried to calm impatient passengers. "There are people on the ramps. If we open the doors, they will rush in. We're keeping you in here for your own safety."

The airport horde had nothing to do with recent protest riots against an iconoclastic ayatollah. By chance, we had boarded the same flight from Dubai as the Iranian national football team.

In Melbourne on Saturday, they drew with Australia and qualified - in the last of 32 matches - for next year's World Cup in France. Iran has not played in the World Cup since 1978, the year before the revolution, and Tehran is in a wild, celebratory mood. "This is the biggest thing that has happened since the Shah left," a businessman told me enthusiastically.

Some attributed Iran's performance to divine intervention. A television in the airport's baggage section broadcast live footage of the triumphant football team arriving by military helicopter at Azadi Stadium, where they were cheered by a crowd of 100,000.

"It was a miracle," a young oil company employee said. "For 77 minutes, Australia was winning. Iran scored two goals in three minutes! It is beyond human abilities - God has rewarded the people of Iran."

The World Cup qualification is good news for President Mohamed Khatami too. When Iran lost the November 15th match against Qatar, the religious conservatives defeated by Mr Khatami's alliance of radical left and moderates in last May's presidential election seized on the defeat to attack his administration.

Conservative members of parliament demanded that sports officials close to Mr Khatami be fired. Mr Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the Speaker of Parliament, who polled only 25 per cent in the presidential election, compared to Mr Khatami's landslide 69 per cent victory, said the football defeat "deeply hurt the feelings of the population" and challenged the government to make up for it.

Football, the great unifier, has allowed Iranians to forget their political disputes, at least for the moment. But in the two weeks between the Qatar defeat and the Australian victory, the country was locked in an ideological battle that is certain to resurface.

At issue is the infallibility of the Supreme Leader and Guide of the revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (58). The Guide - as he is referred to by Iranians - had supported Mr Nateq-Nouri in the presidential election.

In his campaign, Mr NateqNouri emphasised his loyalty to the Velayat-E-Faqih - the Guardianship of the Faithful bequeathed by Ayatollah Khomeini to Mr Khamenei - and the "values of the revolution". Mr Khatami said he wanted "to go beyond the dogma and make the rights of the population more clear, while promoting an opening of the system."

Now the Velayat-E-Faqih is openly questioned. The challenger is Ayatollah Hossein Ali Mon tazeri (75), the cleric who was once Khomeini's heir apparent, but who was consigned to internal exile in the holy city of Qom shortly before Khomeini's death for criticising the revolutions' excesses.

After Montazeri suggested in mid-November that The Guide was too powerful, protesters loyal to Khamenei ransacked Monta zeri's Quranic schools in Qom and Mashad, beat up a student leader in Tehran who had suggested that The Guide ought to be democratically elected, and destroyed the Isfahan office of the left-wing newspaper Salam. In Tehran, demonstrators even accused Montazeri of having killed Khomeini.

In calling for a limit to the powers of The Guide, Ayatollah Montazeri joined a growing movement among Iranian Islamist intellectuals, led by the philosopher Dr Abdol Karim Sorush. A US newspaper dubbed Dr Sorush "the Martin Luther of Iran" because of his suggestion that Iran would be better served by separation of mosque and state. The soubriquet - and its implication that Shia Islam and Iran might be undergoing a reformation - lost Dr Sorush his post at the Academy of Philosophy and doomed him to constant harassment by The Guide's most ardent supporters.

You might think that after overthrowing one absolute ruler in 1979, Iranians would hesitate to give total powers to one man again. But that is exactly what Ayatollah Khomeini did; his constitution makes The Guide commander-in-chief of the armed forces, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards or Pasdaran and militant youth of the Basij (volunteers). All of Iran's main institutions are under Ayatollah Khamenei's control: his conservative faction holds parliament, the justice system, radio and television, the intelligence agency and 40,000 mosques.

The unrest provoked by the dispute over The Guide's role seems to have subsided since Ayatollah Khamenei made a television appeal for calm on November 26th. He accused the US and Israel of inciting Montazeri, whom he described as a "weak, simple and pathetic cleric". Velayat-E-Faqih - i.e., his own supremacy as Guide - was "the backbone of the Islamic regime" which "we must all defend".

Without naming Montazeri, he referred to those who had "targeted the security of the country and committed treason against the revolution. They must be brought before justice, as required by the law."

So until the World Cup begins next summer, all Iran will be watching the battle of the ayatollahs.