MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is spending the next week or so in the city of Qom. It's the center of religious learning in Iran. Khamenei and the Iranian government appear to be using the visit to demonstrate to the public that the country's leading clerics still support him, even after last year's tumultuous presidential election.
Nonetheless, many clerics have not lined up behind him, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER: 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 Ali Khamenei since he sided with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what many in Iran saw as a deeply fraudulent election.
Professor FARIDEH FARHI (Iranian Affairs Analyst, University of Hawaii): I think the election truly undermined his legitimacy in very, very important ways.
SHUSTER: Farideh Farhi is an analyst of Iranian affairs at the University of Hawaii.
Prof. FARHI: He miscalculated very badly and did not expect the results, or the uprising that occurred afterwards.
SHUSTER: 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 as well.
That's why Khamenei has traveled to Qom, says Nader Hashemi, an Iran specialist at the University of Denver.
Professor NADER HASHEMI (Iran Specialist, 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.
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.
SHUSTER: 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 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.
Professor HOSSEIN ASKARI (Iranian Affairs Specialist, George Washington University): 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.
SHUSTER: 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 Farideh Farhi.
Prof. FARHI: 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 tremendous amount of pressure.
SHUSTER: So far, this kind of pressure does not appear to have had much effect, says Hossein Askari.
Prof. ASKARI: 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.
SHUSTER: Some critics, in fact, have stayed away from meetings that Khamenei arranged for senior clerics, perhaps not surprising, given Khamenei's message. On his arrival in Qom earlier this week, 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 the country against political and social microbes.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.