For most of its 34-year-old history, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been run by clerics serving not just as supreme leaders but also as elected presidents, their turban-clad figures becoming familiar worldwide as Iran’s public face.

But the theocratic order, whose base is this dusty city about 90 miles south of Tehran, has become increasingly divided, and the presidential election scheduled for Friday is revealing a dilution of its influence.

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.

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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.

Clerical evolution

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.

Split conservative field

This year, some of the most powerful clerical associations eventually endorsed the candidacy of Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and Johns Hopkins-trained pediatrician who has long been a foreign policy adviser to Khamenei and is widely seen as the leader’s preferred candidate.

But that backing from clerics has yet to translate into demonstrable public support for Velayati in Qom, where his campaign headquarters Monday was manned by only two teenagers, one of them too young to vote. And with the loyalty of voters and many clergymen split among three conservative candidates, there are few signs that clerical backing will be as decisive as in the past.

Late last month, Ayatollah Mohammad-T­aghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a cleric who leads the influential hard-line Islamic Revolution Stability Front, convened a news conference to endorse the candidacy of Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, a former health minister.

“I hereby testify that on this ground and under this sky I don’t know anyone as fit to be president as Lankarani,” Mesbah-Yazdi said. “Some of these candidates I know well and respect, but they are not suitable for the presidency.”

Several days later, however, Lankarani exited the race even before a vetting group known as the Guardian Council issued its final list of eligible candidates. There were reports that Lankarani had pulled out because other influential clerical groups had begun to line up behind a rival, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator.

Among politicians, the clerics who continue to enjoy considerable support do so more because of their political accomplishments than their religious ones.

This is certainly true of Khatami and Rafsanjani, as well as of Hassan Rouhani, whom the two former presidents back in Friday’s election. Rouhani is the only cleric in the race, but he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator under Khatami.

Khatami, especially, enjoys a celebrity-like status in Iran, drawing large crowds wherever he goes.

“I really like Khatami, and when I think about him, his turban is not the thing that comes to mind; it’s what he accomplished in office that matters to me,” said Zahra Mokhtari, a 29-year-old graduate student.