Responses to the Deteriorating Health of the Chairman of the Council of Experts, as an Expression of the Eroding Status of Clerics in Iran

Raz Zimmt discusses the way that the Iranian social media perceives the illness of the Chairman of the Council of Experts.

In early June, the chairman of the Council of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani suffered a massive heart attack followed by a coma. The Council of Experts consists of 86 clerics and, under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, is responsible for monitoring the activity of the Supreme Leader, appointing his successor, and removing him from office if he is found no longer fit to continue in his role. Since the deterioration in Mahdavi-Kani’s health, Iranian media reported some improvement in his condition but he is still in a coma, and there is considerable doubt concerning his prospects for recovery.

Shortly after the initial reports regarding Mahdavi-Kani’s heart attack, thousands of Iranian users uploaded happy responses to social media, in which they expressed the hope for his death and ridiculed his serious condition. Many of them criticized the efforts made to improve his condition on the grounds that it is a waste of public funds. A few days after he lapsed into a coma, Iranian media reported that a senior Iranian-German surgeon Professor Majid Sami'i had come to Tehran to help treat the cleric. In response, an Iranian living in Germany wrote that poor young Iranians sell their kidneys to survive, while the Iranian people’s money is spent on religious figures who benefit from the most expensive medical equipment and best-trained doctors in the world.

The Facebook page of Mehdi Parpanchi, a writer for the BBC in Persian, was flooded with hundreds of angry responses from Iranian users, after he published that President Rouhani had visited Mahdavi-Kani in the hospital and called on the people of Iran to pray for his welfare. One user wished for his speedy demise, so that the cleric “does not occupy a bed in the hospital,” and another said that the people of Iran have no time to pray for him, since they need to pray for an improvement in the country’s condition. Journalist and dissident blogger Mehdi Khazali received many supportive, online reactions after he posted strong words denouncing Mahdavi-Kani, describing him as an opportunist who used his position for personal profit, accumulating money and property while committing crimes against the people of Iran.

Many users mocked the senior cleric’s medical condition. A report published on the reformist website Kaleme on the severe brain damage he suffered after the heart attack, provoked ridicule, like, “Is this fossil brain dead?” “He lived ninety years with a brain but didn’t use it, so what’s the difference?” One user even proposed mummifying Mahdavi-Kani after his death and displaying him in the “Museum of Clerics,” to prevent his grave from becoming another place of pilgrimage.

Moreover, many users were not satisfied with wishing for the death of Mahdavi-Kani alone, and wished for the death of other senior clerics, as well. One user wrote that the Iranians are praying that their country could be quickly be rid of all detrimental clerics, and another wondered when the turn of the Supreme Leader Khamenei would come. Responses also included many death wishes for the Secretary of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a senior radical cleric who has become a subject of mockery because of his advanced age, 87. Hours before Mahdavi-Kani's heart attack, he participated alongside Jannati in a national ceremony commemorating the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Their joint appearance in similar attire provoked reactions from citizens who sarcastically claimed that Jannati had once again fooled Gabriel, the angel of death. One Twitter user tweeted the picture of Jannati and Mahdavi-Kani at the ceremony,  along with the caption: “Jannati cleverly succeeded in dressing like Mahdavi-Kani, defraud [the angel] Gabriel again and survive.”

Responses to the deteriorating health of Mahdavi-Kani can be considered as further evidence for the continuing erosion of the public status of Iranian clergy, and especially those actively involved in state affairs. Blogger Reza Taran, a religion student at the religious seminary in Qom, has been addressing the issue of the growing gap between Iranian public and the Islamic clerics in the personal blog he has been publishing in recent years. One of the trends the blog is following is the increasing alienation between citizens and the clergy since the Islamic revolution. Taran attributes this phenomenon to the fact that clerics are now identified with the regime and enjoy a relatively good economic status rather than living a modest lifestyle as they did previously, which distances them from ordinary citizens. Many of them are satisfied, he said, with giving Friday sermons in the mosques, have almost no regular contact with citizens and are more interested in inconsequential religious matters than the citizen’s distress. This conduct causes many citizens to see them as government officials rather than representatives of religion.

In this spirit, and in response to the joy that the deteriorating health of Mahdavi-Kani caused Iranians, one user wrote: “Look at where society had gone where most people are happy with the death of clerics. " Another user explained the burning hatred of clerics by pointing out helplessness felt by Iranians citizens, who consider clerics’ death the only way to get rid of them.It can be assumed that the growing alienation between the people of Iran and the clerics will continue to be reflected in the future discourse on SNS. This alienation may further reduce the circle of supporters on which the Iranian regime is based upon and threaten its stability, especially in the case of a major crisis, such as the death of Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.