Iran opposition finds ally with grandson of Islamic Revolution leader

By Brian Murphy, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Iran’s reeling reformers find Khomeini family ally

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Inside the shrine to the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini performed his duty as its caretaker — politely greeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and security force chiefs during an official memorial.

Later, Hassan Khomeini quietly slipped away from the ceremony earlier this month to visit the family of one of the imprisoned allies of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

This is the unique niche occupied by the 37-year-old cleric with an easy smile and ginger-colored beard: respected by the ruling system for his family lineage, but regarded with suspicion for his sympathies toward their foes.

So far, Khomeini has stayed in the wings during Iran’s political tempests that have followed last year’s disputed presidential election. He’s given nods to the opposition yet avoided streets protests or using the unmatched power of his family name on their behalf.

But pressures could build for Khomeini to take a more central role.

Opposition forces were left disillusioned Feb. 11 after police and hard-line militiamen snuffed out protest marches to coincide with the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution. Many opposition blogs and Web sites are increasingly questioning whether Mousavi or other pro-reform leaders have run their course.

Hassan Khomeini’s name has begun to percolate — perhaps out of opposition frustration — as a possible guiding light as Iran’s internal turmoil moves toward its one-year mark in June.

“Hassan Khomeini’s story is not finished,” speculated Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London. “There is more to come.”

It’s another example of the extent of Iran’s fissures. Families at the heart of the theocracy have been left divided — or at odds with the leadership — after June’s disputed election and the bloodshed and outrage that followed.

Hadi Khamenei, the younger brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a prominent adviser to pro-reform groups. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is a vehement critic of Ahmadinejad.

The Assembly of Experts led by Rafsanjani is the only group with the authority to dismiss the supreme leader, and supporters of the ruling system appear in firm control.

It’s clear, however, that Hassan Khomeini has the potential to make them nervous.

Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper has denounced Khomeini for his “suspicious support” of opposition figures and hinted he was no longer fit to oversee the shrine to his grandfather or the institute dedicated to the ayatollah’s writings and speeches.

The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency has accused Khomeini of encouraging forces that seek to topple the system his grandfather founded.

In a rare public rebuttal, Hassan Khomeini complained last week that state media are manipulating the words of his grandfather. In a letter to the head of Iran’s state-run television, Khomeini accused the station of trying to link his grandfather’s comments about resistance to the Islamic Revolution to cast shadows on today’s opposition.

Hassan Khomeini has not indicated how he feels about the general direction of Iran’s leadership. He also has not spoken publicly over the current state of his grandfather’s concept of “velayat-e-faqih,” or rule by Islamic clerics.

Hassan Khomeini, who does not grant interviews, did not reply to requests by The Associated Press for specific comments.

“There’s quite a few of the old guard aligned with the opposition,” said Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

But none with the powerful calling card of the Khomeini family name.

Hassan Khomeini’s father, Ahmad, was closely involved in the Islamic Revolution and served as Ayatollah Khomeini’s chief of staff. Ahmad died in 1995 and is also buried in the Khomeini shrine south of Tehran.

Hassan Khomeini is among 15 grandchildren of the ayatollah, but the only one with any significant public role.

Another of Khomeini’s grandchildren, Zahra Eshraghi, and her husband Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is the brother of former pro-reform president Mohammad Khatami, were held for less than an hour by security forces during the tense Feb. 11 events marking the Revolution anniversary.

Hassan Khomeini first came under hard-line criticism for links with the opposition after Ahmadinejad’s first election in 2005 with groups such as the Revolutionary Guard questioning his loyalty to the state.

Khomeini has generally refrained from public responses. But he has made his views about Ahmadinejad clear through actions.

In August, he joined other high-ranking officials — including former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami — in snubbing the swearing-in ceremony for Ahmadinejad.

Earlier this month, he didn’t wait to escort Ahmadinejad through the entire memorial service at the Khomeini shrine and instead headed to visit the family of opposition adviser Alireza Beheshti, who was among more than 100 opposition leaders and others jailed since the postelection crackdowns.

Less than a week after Khomeini’s visit, Beheshti was released, but it was unclear if the ayatollah’s grandson had intervened.

Back in 2008 — in a preview of the ideological battles ahead — Rafsanjani lashed out at hard-liners trying to tarnish the reputation of Hassan Khomeini.

“They think they are trying to clear away problems and help the revolution,” he said. “They are wrong.”

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