Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is spending the next week or so in the city of Qom, the center of religious learning in Iran.
Khamenei and the Iranian government appear to be using the visit to demonstrate to the public that Iran's leading clerics continue to support him, even through the turmoil after the tumultuous June 2009 presidential election.
But many clerics have not lined up behind him.
The supreme leader of Iran is supposed to be just that -- supreme -- in all matters religious and political. He is the ultimate power, above the president, above the Parliament, and if not above all other religious figures, at least their equals.
Maintaining that status has been difficult for Khamenei since he sided with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what many in Iran saw as a deeply fraudulent election.
Farideh Farhi, an analyst of Iranian affairs at the University of Hawaii, says she thinks the election "truly undermined [Khamenei's] legitimacy in very, very important ways."
"He miscalculated very badly and did not expect the results, or the uprising that occurred afterwards," Farhi says.
Trying To Repair Reputation
As the demonstrations grew and were met with ever increasing violence, many protesters took to denouncing Khamenei as a dictator. The criticism came not only from political opponents. Many of Iran's senior clerics openly criticized Khamenei's actions, calling into question his legitimacy as a religious leader, too.
That is why Khamenei has traveled to Qom, says Nader Hashemi, an Iran specialist at the University of Denver. "By going to Qom, I think the regime is trying to shore up its own status and its own legitimacy where it feels it's very weak. Because there is a consensus among many of the senior clerics that Khamenei does not have the credentials to be a senior religious leader," Hashemi says.
"But also the policies that have been pursued in Iran over the last 14 months since the election -- the human-rights violations -- have damaged the reputation of Islam. And many of the clerics, very senior ones, distance themselves from it," he says.
Regime's Loss Of Religious Credibility
For many months, it seemed that the supreme leader simply ignored both the open criticism coming from Qom as well as the silence of many more clerics who failed to line up behind him.
The trip to Qom had been rumored for quite some time. But it apparently was put off repeatedly.
As Iran's crisis deepened, the trip became all the more necessary, says Hossein Askari, a specialist in Iranian affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "The regime has lost a lot of its religious credibility. Ayatollah Khamenei would want to go to Qom to try to bring back the renegades, if you want to call them that, that no longer really support him or recognize him as the spokesman for God on this Earth," Askari says.
But many of Khamenei's critics in Qom have been harassed and threatened. The home of one especially outspoken ayatollah was attacked recently. And the websites of some ayatollahs have been blocked, says Farhi of the University of Hawaii. "One in particular, it was reported that he was going to leave town. There are reports that the intelligence services have visited him and they have effectively asked him to stay in town. The critical ayatollahs, openly critical ayatollahs, have been under a tremendous amount of pressure," Farhi says.
Critics Undeterred So Far
This kind of pressure does not appear to have had much effect, Askari says. "I don't think that many of the senior clerics in Qom who have expressed views against him will, in fact, back down and back him," he says.
The critics did not attend a meeting that Khamenei arranged for senior clerics Thursday.
Perhaps that's not surprising, given Khamenei's message. On his arrival in Qom on Tuesday, he delivered a speech in the city's central square in which he labeled opposition to the government sedition and said the government had inoculated Iran against political and social microbes.