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What Iraq can teach Iran

Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq shows religion can play an influential, but background, role in a secular democracy.

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Although Iran's postelection protests appeared crushed for now by brutal violence, a giant theological chasm has opened among Iran's Shiite clerics – one that also gives President Obama a safe opportunity to influence Iran's course.

Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the weakest reed in Iran's complex system of government has been the claim of a supreme leader with absolute political authority based on his Islamic credentials. It is an idea not accepted by the 90 percent of the world's Muslims who are Sunni. And it is rejected outside Iran in other Shiite strongholds, such as in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon and in Iraq.

Known in Arabic as velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih (guardian or the jurist), this concocted religious doctrine, enshrined in Iran's Constitution, was recently rejected by a leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeric, who was once the designated successor to the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"Even the prophet did not have absolute velayat-e faqih," Mr. Montazeric stated earlier this year in open defiance of Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Montazeric fell out of favor with Khomeini just before his death in 1989, but is still influential.)

This challenge to one-man rule is also championed by Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a powerful former president and the head of the 86-member Assembly of Experts which, in theory, oversees the office of the supreme leader. He reportedly has sought recently to form an alternative political rule in Iran to be run by a collective religious leadership making day-to-day decisions.

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