Iran: Senior clerics are turning against Raisi government over economic crisis
While the immediate threat to Iran's establishment from mass protests sweeping the country may have passed, a powerful source of criticism could present a growing danger to conservative President Ebrahim Raisi.
With Iran’s currency in a downward spiral, senior clerics are turning against the government, expressing rare criticism of the authorities over the country’s worsening economic situation.
The grand ayatollahs' position is a departure from their earlier support for the president, raising questions as to whether his future in office could be at stake.
'If we do not behave properly, God will take us away and will preserve his religion through another group'
- Grand Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli
Raisi has been facing a popular protest movement calling for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. The anti-government protests erupted following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on 16 September after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf “improperly”.
The protests were followed by a large-scale crackdown that killed hundreds, saw the arrest of thousands, and the execution of several protesters in December and January after what Amnesty International described as “sham trials". Dozens more face the death penalty.
Meanwhile, the Iranian economy has been badly hit in recent months as Washington has tightened its sanctions against Tehran in response to the crackdown and the likely failure of Iran-US talks for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The rial has lost 58 percent of its value in the last six months. While the rial traded at about 29,000 tomans against the US dollar in September, it has now exceeded 46,000 tomans (one toman is the equivalent of 10 rials). This has tripled the price of food and triggered widespread popular anger.
The grand ayatollahs, also known as "marjas", have contact with the public as part of their daily job and are thus echoing the sentiments of the Iranian street.
The title "marja" is used for clerics who are jurisprudentially able to reach a religious edict. Currently, Iran has officially less than eight marjas, but unofficially the number is more.
Every Shia Muslim must choose and follow a grand ayatollah in religious matters. Moreover, marjas can make decisions for their followers on religious, social, and even political matters.
The grand ayatollahs are mostly based in the holy city of Qom, hosting seminaries, and are mostly close to the Islamic Republic establishment.
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani, a supporter of the hardliners, has complained that prices haven’t decreased. He also expressed his disapproval over Iran’s currency losing more value.
Another cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, held the government responsible for failing to reduce poverty. “We have been receiving complaints about [people’s] livelihoods,” he said in January.
Likewise, Grand Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli warned that the authorities may face divine punishment. “If we do not behave properly, God will take us away and will preserve his religion through another group,” he said in statements published by the semi-official Mehr News Agency.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha said earlier this month that “we have lost the trust of people” and this stems from “our ineptitude”.
Days later, Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a member of the Assembly of Teachers and Researchers of Qom Seminary, slammed President Raisi for the currency crisis. “Mr President, the exchange and inflation rates do not improve by your order. Why don’t you think fundamentally? The hiking prices have made people miserable ahead of the [Persian] new year.”
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi has been at the forefront of explicit criticisms against the government. In December, Makarem Shirazi, who is 95, decried the fact that inflation witnessed a sharp increase compared to the previous year. He attributed the economic crisis to the country’s dependence on the US dollar, accusing the state of doing little to change the situation.
In a more recent statement on 4 February, Shirazi accused government officials of living in luxury while the majority suffers.
“Is this [fair] that some officials are living in welfare, while there are a lot of poor people?”
The same cleric, however, attacked the anti-government protests that erupted in the aftermath of the death of Mahsa Amini.
“We should not magnify small issues; the rioters are too small and insignificant to want to change the system and the country,” he said in statements published by a local newspaper.
'The continued criticism of marjas will vehemently weaken the legitimacy of Raisi and will probably lead him to lose the next presidential race'
- Iranian political commentator
As the Islamic Republic security forces started killing protesters and executing them, the seminary and the grand ayatollahs largely kept silent, while President Raisi attacked those he described as “confidants” who didn’t back the Islamic Republic during the protests, and stated that “you failed” as “you didn’t do your religious and moral duties”.
Meanwhile, the grand ayatollahs including Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani have called on the government to “listen to the people’s complaints”.
Many other clerics did not throw their weight behind the death sentences handed to demonstrators. For instance, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a senior cleric who used to be a high-ranking official in the intelligence ministry, didn’t back the recent executions. Instead, he indirectly stated on 15 February that accusing people of “espionage” needs “evidence”, and that such accusations make the “society unsafe”.
Dire consequences for Raisi?
Analysts believe that the grand ayatollahs’ criticism will have dire consequences for Raisi as it will take religious supporters away from him.
A senior cleric in Qom, formerly close to hardliners, said the recent criticisms by the marjas are significant mainly because of the popular support they enjoy as well as their influence on the country’s religious establishment.
"Both the religious class and most of the grand ayatollahs somehow supported Raisi in the first place. Right now, the marjas’ repeated harsh criticisms of the government of Raisi is a retreat from their previous support," the cleric said on condition of anonymity.
"When the marjas are slamming the government, they are well aware that their criticism would send a signal to the establishment," noted the cleric.
"If the economic situation worsens in the next three or four months, the marjas will make their tone harsher, and will possibly not let President Raisi and any official into their offices... This will deliver a huge blow to both Raisi, who will lose a lot of his religious supporters and the Islamic Republic leadership, because many consider Raisi as a representative of the establishment in the presidential palace."
A political commentator who spoke on condition of anonymity said that if the grand ayatollahs increase their attacks on Raisi, this may force the parliament to make a move and hold a vote of no confidence against the president.
However, he added that since the Islamic Republic’s political leadership is fully behind Raisi, “it remains unclear if parliament would dare to remove him unless they receive a green light”.
“The establishment is not capable of ignoring the marjas, and therefore they will have to do something, or sacrifice someone, to decrease their anger.
“Whatever happens, the continued criticism of marjas will vehemently weaken the legitimacy of Raisi and will probably lead him to lose the next presidential race,” the commentator said.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.