In past elections, powerful clerical associations, some established before the 1979 Islamic revolution, guided clergymen and laypeople in whom to vote for, offering clear endorsements of preferred candidates. More recently, politicians continue to actively court clerical support, but it is unclear how much it helps them at the ballot box.
This year, divisions within some clerical groups — including the powerful Association of Combatant Clerics — delayed their endorsements. Some conservative candidates who would otherwise have counted on clerical blessings entered the presidential race without that backing, while one candidate who won a high-level clerical embrace backed out of the contest when a rival began to win broader favor from other groups.
With a population of 1.2 million, including about 50,000 clerics, Qom is Iran’s second-holiest city and an important pilgrimage site that rivals the Iraqi city of Najaf as Shiite Islam’s top center of religious scholarship.
A visit to the Feyzieh seminary, which served as the spiritual and political heart of the 1979 revolution, found students more concerned about their final exams than about the election.
“I will vote because it’s my religious duty, but I have not decided on which candidate I will support,” said Jasem Tahami, a 23-year-old student, who was rushing to get to a test on time clad in his turban and robe, the traditional attire of Shiite clerics.
The reign of clerics in Iran’s presidency lasted 24 years, beginning with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who served two four-year terms beginning in 1981, and continuing with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served from 1989 to 1997, and Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005. But while most clergymen backed Rafsanjani in the 2005 presidential race, a split between the clerics and the popular vote emerged, leading to a runoff victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran not eligible for either the black or white turban worn by his three predecessors.
Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 to become Iran’s supreme leader, a status bestowed by fellow religious scholars that carries broad authority extending far beyond that of the president. But many top clerics have tried to stay out of the political fray, and the clergy’s role in Iranian society has evolved to the extent that clerics hold a wide range of jobs — particularly in the fields of education, law and trade — that have little do with their religious training.
Today, many of the clerics who have long wielded the most power in Iran are aging, and experts say clerics in general hold less sway among the young and fast-
growing Iranian population than at any time since the revolution.