By Ehsan Mehrabi
December 7, 2021
By now, any Iranian citizen who pens a critical open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei knows to expect not a considered response, but harassment by the authorities, imprisonment or even death. IranWire has already published several articles documenting the fates of such writers over the decades. This one is different: the would-be correspondent wasn’t just anybody in Khamenei’s eyes, not an intellectual nor a dissident nor an activist, but an influential ayatollah who had once been a favorite of Ruhollah Khomeini himself.
Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri was a protégé of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The left-leaning cleric was also close to Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the once heir-apparent to the founder of the Islamic Republic. Taheri had served as Isfahan’s Friday Imam since 1972, and was elected to the constitutional convention and the Assembly of Experts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Because of his position, Taheri was also an influential critic of the more extremist policies of the Islamic Republic. In 1995, in a bid to curb this influence, Ayatollah Khamenei asked a different, more tame cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri, to go to Isfahan and run the city’s Shia seminary as a counterbalance to Taheri.
Two years later in 1997, the reformist Mohammad Khatami won the presidency. In this highly polarized political atmosphere, Khamenei’s supporters heaped further pressure on Ayatollah Taheri. At his every Friday sermon, members of the paramilitary organization Ansar-e Hezbollah (“Supporters of the Party of God”) showed up en masse to chant: “Resign, Taheri!”.
During the holy month of Ramadan in 1999, a number of reformist and liberal figures such as Mohsen Kadivar delivered speeches at Ayatollah Taheri’s congregational hall (hosseiniyah) in Hossein Abad, Isfahan. Members of Ansar-e Hezbollah disrupted these events too, even throwing wooden and iron sticks, stones and shoes at Ayatollah Taheri. Police did not arrest any of them. The only person arrested was the ayatollah’s chief of staff, who had physically clashed with Ansar-e Hezbollah.
The campaign of harassment continued until July 9, 2002, when Ayatollah Taheri wrote a scathing letter to the Supreme Leader and offered his resignation. Khamenei accepted, and in his reply, rubbed salt in the wound by making innuendos against Taheri.
Taheri’s letter was published not long after, on the anniversary of the July 1999 attack on the Tehran University dormitory by the riot police. The incident had sparked widespread student protests during which at least three people were killed, more than 70 disappeared, more than 200 injured and an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 detained.
“I Shudder in Shame”
In his resignation letter, Ayatollah Taheri referred directly to the attack on Tehran University. He wrote that the “savages” and “thugs” responsible for it had earned the “eternal curse of God, and the everlasting hatred of the people”. He also accused Khamenei and his associates of encouraging a bunch of “club-wielding” thugs, sharpening “the teeth of the alligator of violence”, and trying to “wed religion to the ugly hag of violence”.
Taheri went on to give an extensive list of problems Iran had recently faced, including economic strife, the “disenfranchisement of parliament”, “lifetime, invulnerable and unaccountable powers”, “unsuccessful foreign policies”, “visible and invisible unusual business institutions”, “arbitrary house arrests and imprisonments”, “absurd supervisory powers with the ability to veto and the “unacceptable Special Clerical Court”. Nepotism and corruption, he wrote, were stripping the country of its wealth.
“When I remember the [unfulfilled] promises of the revolution… I shudder in shame,” wrote Taheri. “I fear for my faith, and I see that the sun of my life is setting.”
The publication of the letter caused uproar. The reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front and no fewer than 125 then-MPs issued a statement in support of Ayatollah Taheri: “We understand your pain,” it read, “and we hope that your justified demands be heard before any misstep, in order that the road to advancing the people’s demands be opened.”
The next day, the Supreme National Security Council ordered Iranian newspapers not print any commentary either for or against his assertions in the letter. Years later Hassan Rouhani, who was secretary of the council at the time, would try to justify this order, claiming that it had been ordered by Khatami’s Intelligence Ministry due to fears over a possible boiling-over of “tensions” in the country.
Shortly after the order was given, the Islamic Iran Participation Front’s reformist daily newspaper Nowruz ran with a series of blank spaces which, it explained, would otherwise have carried stories about Ayatollah Taheri. They included part of the front page. The paper was banned not long afterward, and Rouhani told a press conference that Nowruz had been trying to “spite” the Supreme National Security Council.
The reformist newspaper Azad was also banned after it printed a front-page story about Ayatollah Taheri. The editor-in-chief held that Azad had received the gagging order only after the paper had gone to print.
While this was the fate of two reformist papers, the hardline Kayhan and Resalat suffered no consequences when they harshly attacked Ayatollah Taheri in the days that followed. At a Friday Prayers sermon in Qom, Ali Meshkini, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, called Taheri’s resignation letter “a bad letter with literary constructions” and claimed it had not been written by Taheri but “forced” on him by associates.
In his subsequent letter accepting Ayatollah Taheri’s resignation, Ali Khamenei admonished the long-serving Friday Imam and suggested he was being hypocritical. “When it comes to financial corruption, it would have been appropriate had he started with all his own relatives and associates. He should not see corruption only in those removed from him. He should also notice corruption in those close to him, and in people he finds trustworthy, and he should fight against it.”
Principalists at the time posited that Khamenei’s reference was to rumors of corruption surrounding Ayatollah Abbas-Ali Rouhani, a prominent clergyman in Isfahan who was close to Ayatollah Taheri.
In his letter, Khamenei also reminded Taheri of the fate of Ayatollah Montazeri, whose falling out of favor with Ruhollah Khomeini, he wrote, was caused by “untrustworthy” associations. He also wrote that the “counter-revolution” supposedly nurtured by the US and Israel would be the greatest beneficiary of Taheri’s letter. “I personally would forget the unkindness toward myself,” he wrote, “but we all of us should have learned from our late, great Imam [Khomeini] that unkindness towards the nation and trying to destabilize the Islamic regime is unforgivable.”
Later on it was reported that Khamenei’s office had sent intermediaries to Ayatollah Taheri in a bid to convince him to either retract his words, or to publicly clarify the content of his letter in a “kinder” way.
The Loyal, Misogynist Successor
Around three months after Ayatollah Taheri’s resignation, the Supreme Leader appointed Yousef Tabatabaei-Nejad as Isfahan’s new Friday Imam. People from other towns in the province were dispatched to Isfahan to ensure Tabatabei-Nejad had big enough crowds to welcome him on arrival.
Tabatabei-Nejad is a staunch follower of Khamenei, and also known globally for his unapologetic misogyny. In 2015, he said women should be barred from working in stores and offices. In 2016, he claimed women taking pictures of themselves on Isfahan’s Zayanderud river had contributed to the drought. In 2019, he forced Isfahan Municipality to deny women access to bicycles. In 2020, he blamed women with “loose hijab” for acid attacks in 2014 and he urged Iran’s security agencies to create an “unsafe environment” for women with uncovered hair. Earlier this year, he said women could not be pilots because they could be distracted by menstruation.
Ayatollah Taheri’s letters of protest did not stop with his resignation. On January 17, 2003, he wrote to 10 prominent ayatollahs and demanded that the house arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri be lifted. After nationwide protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election, he praised Montazeri’s support for the protesters, condemning the crackdown by “uninvited guests” and “opportunists” who, he said, were “plundering the country”.
The cleric’s son, Mohammad Hossein Taheri, was arrested during the 2009 protests and sentenced to four years in prison, 74 lashes and 10 years’ internal exile in the city of Zabol in the unhospitable, impoverished border province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
Ayatollah Taheri died in June 2013 at the age of 87. His funeral turned into an anti-government protest that was covered by the international media. Thousands of mourners at chanted slogans against the government and shouted “Death to the dictator!”, also calling for the release of all political prisoners, including the reformist Mehdi Karroubi and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who remain under house arrest to this day.
For once on this occasion, the protesters were not attacked by security forces, the Basij or the conscripted “thugs” working on their behalf. The reason, the BBC later suggested, was that the authorities were trying not to provoke public anger just 10 days ahead of the 2013 presidential election. Khamenei expressed his condolences for the death of Taheri – without mentioning his resignation letter, naturally.