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Iran's Khamenei scores points with cleric critics

PARIS (Reuters) - Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have scored a political success by gathering leading clerics in the holy city of Qom around him in a show of unity after months of in-fighting.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with top Iranian clerics in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom,120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Tehran, October 20, 2010. REUTERS/Khamenei.ir/ Handout

Iranian media highlighted pictures on Thursday of a smiling Khamenei sitting with several top Shi’ite Muslim dignitaries, including some who have been critical since the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year.

The carefully filtered images reinforced Khamenei’s call for Iranians to unite against foreign enemies he accused of trying to destabilize the country through economic sanctions and denying it the right to advanced nuclear technology.

“Our enemies want to make people disillusioned with the system...They portray a dark and gloomy horizon of the future,” he told a crowd in his first speech in Qom on Tuesday.

“National unity is very important and must be strengthened with every passing day... and by that I am addressing both officials and ordinary people. We should take it seriously.”

Among the sages pictured sipping tea with Khamenei was Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, a critic of Ahmadinejad, along with five other clerics who have the elevated status of “marja-e taqlid” (source of emulation), meaning that Shi’ite Muslims may choose them as a personal spiritual guide.

Their turnout belied rumors that senior religious figures would boycott Khamenei’s annual visit to the center of Shi’ite learning in protest at a fierce crackdown on reformists and moves to isolate and intimidate dissident clerics.

“All different groups and figures without exception had come to welcome the leader and everyone felt that they were united,” Tehran-e Emrouz daily quoted Makarem-Shirazi as saying.

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The display of relative clerical unity followed a triumphant visit to Lebanon by Ahmadinejad last week that underlined wider support for Iran among Arabs and other Muslims who admire Tehran’s defiance of the United States and Israel.

“(Khamenei’s) trip shows the leader has the power to unite factions ... and it is a message to those who hoped the in-fighting may lead to the collapse of the system,” a senior Western diplomat in Tehran said.

However, while conservative clerics who have voiced concern about the economy or the prerogatives of the clergy came to meet Khamenei, more liberal figures who backed opposition candidate Mirhossein Mousavi last year have so far stayed away.

Whether the spirit of reconciliation endures beyond his nine-day visit remains to be seen. Clerical sources say unease is rife in Qom over a perceived drive by Khamenei to position his second son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as his potential successor.

The leader offered no public olive branch to critics of last year’s election, which the opposition said was rigged, or of the suppression of pro-democracy protests with mass arrests, show trials, alleged torture and the execution of several activists.

“Last year’s sedition vaccinated the country against political and social microbes which could have a negative impact and it increased people’s insight,” he told supporters, who punctuated his speech with chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

Opposition website Sahamnews reported that families of political prisoners had sent an open letter to Qom religious authorities, urging them to challenge Khamenei on the treatment meted out to critics of the government.

“Ask him how it is possible for a large number of artists and thinkers along with politicians, university professors and students, as well as ordinary people in the streets and bazaars throughout the country, to all be seditionists and the lackeys of foreign countries,” the letter was quoted as saying.

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“Ask why a citizen’s ordinary and civil protest should be interpreted as an expression of enmity.”

Also among the senior clerics pictured with Khamenei was Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, whose presence seemed intended to dispel an opposition website report last week that he had threatened to resign over the treatment of political prisoners. His office denied he had written any such letter to the leader.

A photo album on Khamenei’s website (www.khamenei.ir) showed the leader sitting with groups of turbaned clerics in a sparsely furnished room adorned only with a portrait of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but not of himself.

Larijani’s brother Ali, the speaker of parliament, was the only non-cleric depicted, giving him a position of prominence.

Ali Larijani has been locked in a struggle with Ahmadinejad over the relative powers of parliament and the executive. Sharq newspaper quoted him as saying on Tuesday that preserving alternative political outlooks was important for national unity.

Security and unity would be fragile if they were achieved by sidelining other political views, said Larijani, elected from Qom in Iran’s 2008 parliament elections.

Editing by David Stamp and Mark Trevelyan

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