The sketch was posted last month on the Telegram channel of a mainstream news outlet, the Iranian Labor News Agency, before being swiftly taken down.
Its appearance, however brief, represented a rare criticism of Iran’s ruling religious establishment by the media and came amid a wider outcry among Iranians over the role played by the Shiite Muslim clergy during the pandemic.
Since Iran’s outbreak first erupted in the holy city of Qom, religious leaders have resisted calls for quarantines, protested orders to close shrines, cast the coronavirus as an American conspiracy, and promoted traditional or Islamic medicine as a panacea for covid-19, the disease it causes. Their actions have angered senior health officials and stoked long-existing doubts within the Iranian population about whether the clergy are fit to rule.
In Iran, a Shiite theocracy, clerics preside over and participate in all matters of the state. But their botched response to the pandemic may be weakening the clergy’s political stature, at a time when its influence was already under pressure, political analysts say.
As the religious elite fumbled and deaths from the virus mounted — Iran has now reported nearly 7,000 deaths and more than 118,000 infections — the country’s powerful security services have stepped in to conduct disease surveillance, disinfect public spaces and even oversee victims’ burials, a role long reserved for civilian authorities and Shiite clerics.
The pandemic, Iranians inside the country and analysts say, has highlighted the clergy’s dwindling relevance while granting the armed forces an opportunity to consolidate power. It’s a dynamic with implications for Iran’s political future, as the battle heats up to succeed Khamenei and a more modern middle class grows tired of theocratic government.
“The clergy’s apparent resistance to the state’s virus control mandates will likely be marked as a point of no return for public mistrust of clerics and suspicion about their ability to serve as rational authorities in the political or social sphere,” Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a recent policy analysis.
According to Khalaji, a former Qom-trained theologian, the clerics’ “spectacular failure” to respond adequately to the outbreak “will make power players less interested in seeking ideological or political support from the clergy post-Khamenei.”
“I can tell that [the clergy] have lost more credibility” among the people as a result of the outbreak, said Mohammad, 70, a retired resident of the capital, Tehran. He spoke on the condition of using only his first name so he could freely criticize the religious establishment.
“They could have repaired their image by helping people or giving emotional support” to victims, Mohammad said of the clerics. “But they ruined it further by weighing in on things they don’t know about, such as medicine.”
The cartoon depicting the huckster healers appeared to hit a nerve with the clerical-run government. While the artist, Reza Aghili, lives in exile in Turkey beyond the reach of authorities, the news director of ILNA and the manager of its Telegram channel were arrested late last month for allegedly insulting “Islam’s sacred principles” and religious leaders, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog group.
“In my opinion,” Aghili said in an interview, “not only the clergy’s popularity but Islam’s popularity in general is the lowest it has ever been.”
A fading authority
During the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian clerics helped overthrow the repressive regime of the Shah and then backed a new Shiite doctrine known as wilayat al-faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” which now guides Iran. But the reputation of the clergy, once known for their fierce independence from the government, has been sullied over the decades because of their involvement in politics and — some Iranians say mismanagement of — everyday administrative affairs.
Within the halls of power, political analysts say, the clerics’ authority has been fading amid the dramatic rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a sprawling military and economic institution whose influence now extends from politics to media to Iran’s nascent space program. The force was founded in the years following the revolution initially to protect the Islamic republic from internal threats.
At the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s highest strategic decision-making body, Revolutionary Guard “commanders exert greater influence than civilian or clerical decision-makers,” said Ali Alfoneh, author of “Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards is Transforming Iran From a Theocracy to a Military Dictatorship.”
“Even the highest-ranking clergy, and founders of the Islamic republic, are sooner or later denounced as traitors, counterrevolutionary, foreign agents and led to prison by the IRGC,” Alfoneh said.
Amir, a former philosophy student in Qom, said in an interview that the measures taken by the security forces are gaining them public support.
“I think that the Revolutionary Guard is winning the people’s trust, while the clergy has been losing it,” Amir, 30, said. He also spoke on the condition of using only his first name to comment freely about the security forces. “The older generation is angry at the clerics and will curse them,” he said. “While the younger generation just makes jokes at their expense.”
Mahshid, a 33-year-old market researcher in Tehran who spoke on the condition that her full name would not be used so she could comment critically without fear of reprisal, had nothing good to say about the clerics. “I think that the clergy is entirely irrelevant to society in Iran today,” she said.
In responding to the coronavirus, Revolutionary Guard members and allied militias have even broached the realm of religion themselves, distributing a collection of prayers recommended by Khamenei as protection against the virus.
“They put on a performance as if they were actually doing something to fight the virus,” Mohsen Kadivar, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, said of the Revolutionary Guard. But, he added, “I think that the people know that this has been a show. In general, I think that both the clerical and military arms of the regime have lost their credibility.”
Division within the ranks
The epidemic of coronavirus infections has hit Iran’s leaders hard, taking the lives of senior clerics, including the Islamic republic’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Khamenei’s representative in Langroud in northern Iran and a member of the Assembly of Experts tasked with choosing the next supreme leader.
That assembly member, Hashem Bathaei Golpayegani, died in March several days after announcing he was cured of the virus by eating soil from the grave of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shiite Islam, in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala.
And even as Iran continues to struggle with the largest outbreak in the Middle East, the head of Iran’s Islamic Development Organization, a cultural and religious body linked to the supreme leader, said Monday that all mosques in Iran will reopen this month.
Not all of Iran’s clerics, however, have eschewed modern medicine or opposed the public health recommendations, and many have supported temporary bans on collective prayer and enacting mandatory hygiene at mosques.
“When it comes to medicine and public health, there is a diversity of opinion within the Shiite clerical establishment,” said Amir Afkhami, associate professor of global health at George Washington University.
“The unwillingness of the religious strata of the country to place restrictions on pilgrimage and assemblies and on major Shiite shrines certainly worsened the crisis early on,” he said. “But most clerics are open to modern medicine.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the long-standing division within the clerical ranks between those who support the clergy’s role in running the country and more traditional religious factions that argue it is wiser for them to remain apart from the government.
Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei, a former member of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, is among those who reject the clergy’s involvement in political affairs.
In an interview via Telegram, Saanei, who is based in Qom, said those who have promoted alternative therapies and rejected public health guidance are part of “an inept group who try to cling to sharia” or Islamic law.
“The learned and enlightened clergy have never sided against hygiene and medical guidance and they never will,” Saanei said, drawing a line between himself and like-minded clerics and those affiliated with the ruling clergy.
“The executive affairs of a society are not the responsibility of the clergy, but if they act according to their religious obligations, including defending Islam and confronting oppression, then they will be trusted again by the people,” he said.