A leading reformist clerical group?

Qom_masjed-e-hazrat-masumehIndependence Day weekend might not be the best time for a major story to get its due. Case in point is this fascinating New York Times story about Iranian clerics defying Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the rigged presidential election there. First a point about Iran coverage. I recognize that it's difficult to cover a story when the government is threatening reporters with arrest, kidnapping others and generally behaving horribly. But I fear that is only part of the reason why Iran coverage has dropped off the cliff. I fear that the other reason is that news producers and their consumers care more about Michael Jackson, Gov. Sarah Palin and Steve McNair than they do about major happenings in other countries. I think all three of those individuals are worthy of coverage but the amount of coverage is questionable. I have next to no idea what's happened in Iran in the last week and I would like much more information.

So this Times piece is welcome. Here's the bombshell:

The most important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country's supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country's clerical establishment.

A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult -- if not impossible.

"This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. "Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei."

There is a lot more information about what the clerics said and why the division is important. It's a fascinating read.

But the one thing that isn't explained in the story is what the nature of the division is. The theological or political differences between the groups aren't explained. Perhaps some other media outlets can get off of their all-MJ-all-the-time media coverage to notice this huge story in the Times and do some follow-ups.

The other issue I have with the story is why the Times refers to the group as the most important group of religious leaders. A BBC report on the same statement paints the group quite differently:

A group of clerics in Iran has called Iran's presidential vote invalid, contradicting official results.

The pro-reform group's statement pits it against the top legislative body, which last week formally endorsed the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Are they the most important clerical group in the country? Or are they a pro-reform group? It drastically changes the story, no?

Image of Qum via Wikimedia.

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