Ali Yaghoubi – A threat to the “Islamic principles” of the IRGC?

Speaking to leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Ali ibn Abi Taleb Division  in Qom province last Tuesday, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, one of the most senior Shiite clergymen in Iran, warned of the rising influence of an unorthodox religious doctrine in the IRGC.

Makarem Shirazi praised the IRGC, calling it a “moral-military” institution which had been created with religious motivations at its very core. But he also cautioned the IRGC about the influence of an emerging unorthodoxy in its ranks:

“We must fear the day that, God forbidding, doubt and moral corruption which the enemy is plotting, even in a small way, strikes the Sepah [referring to the IRGC].”

Alluding to what he perceived as a generational gap within the IRGC, he said that junior guardsmen, who had no direct experience with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and did not understand the price at which the revolution had been achieved, needed to be educated by more senior guardsmen. He then made the controversial remarks which gained traction inside Iran last week:

“Sometimes it is possible that some guardsmen may become victims of pseudo-mystical schools of thought… It is sometimes heard that because certain individuals want to be mystical, they become trapped by these schools of thought. It is particularly dangerous if an IRGC commander becomes interested in and falls into the trap of a person preaching pseudo-mysticism and new non-Islamic mysticism.”

During a press conference this past Saturday Hojjatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC, was quick to downplay claims made by Makarem Shirazi. Reaffirming the strong ties between the IRGC and Shiite clergy (specifically marja-e taghlid or “objects of emulation”, the most senior clergymen), he  rejected the idea that there were differences between the two. Saeedi emphasized that the information to which Makarem Shirazi was referring to was inaccurate, and that his office would be in contact with the senior clergyman soon to dispel the unfounded notions. He finished by emphasizing:

“The advice of the Supreme Leader has always been to maintain ties with seminaries and senior clergy. The Sepah has no differences with clergy who back the regime, and of course has quarrel with clergy who stand against the regime. We must dispel incorrect mentalities.”

Editor’s Note: Makarem Shirazi’s comments are interesting because they allude to possible ideological tensions both within the regime and its most important security body, the IRGC. While reports about these tensions, and existence of a mysterious preacher named Ali Yaghoubi, have existed at the margins of the Iranian press for some time now, new reporting by Hossein Bastani at BBC Persian has shed some more light on the issue.

Ali Yaghoubi is alleged to be the mastermind behind what the Iranian mainstream press and political establishment have taken to calling the “deviant current”. Although not a Shiite clergyman by profession, Yaghoubi appears to have been giving religious speeches and writing pamphlets for some time now. He is thought to be the ideologue behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Yaghoubi’s speeches and pamphlets are said to contain ideas antithetical to the core principles of the Islamic Republic. Among his more controversial positions are his claim that the time for Islamism has passed, belief in the rapid approach of end times and coming of the Shiite messianic figure of the Mahdi, and assertion that this means the Velayat-e Faghih, the religious concept at the heart of the regime, may no longer play as significant a role as it does today. He also questions whether Shiite clergymen in Iran today have a correct understanding of Islam, thereby undermining their authority.

Curiously enough, despite being on the fringes of the regime ideologically, Yaghoubi appears to have some very strong support by high ranking regime officials. According to Bastani’s report, the hardline Kayhan newspaper, considered to be a mouthpiece of Khamenei, published a scathing article against the “deviant current” and referred to Yaghoubi by name. Kayhan, which is not known for parsing its words, retracted his name from the article one day later saying it could not stand by the research behind it. This unusual retraction, alongside Yaghoubi’s exclusion from a wave of arrests that targeted the “deviant current”, could be an indication of the behind the scenes power he wields.

While Saeedi and this week’s Sobh-e Sadegh editorial (issue 547) have attempted to downplay Makarem Shirazi’s concerns, it is clear that he has touched on a sensitive topic. Yaghoubi’s possible influence in the IRGC and segments of its senior leadership could represent a threat to the role of the clergy which has been institutionalized at the top of Iran’s political system since 1979.