[Update at Bottom.]
Folks, this is huge. Huge. A report from Saudi Arabia's al-Arabiya, Iranian clerics seek supreme leader alternative, indicates that Rafsanjani is seeking to eliminate the Supreme Leader. Not just the man, but the position and role presiding over Iranian politics and the Iranian society.
Religious leaders are considering an alternative to the supreme leader structure after at least 13 people were killed in the latest unrest to shake Tehran and family members of Ayatollah Rafsanjani were arrested amid calls by former President Mohammad Khatami for the release of all protesters.
Iran's religious clerks in Qom and members of the Assembly of Experts, headed by former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, are mulling the formation of an alternative collective leadership to replace that of the supreme leader, sources in Qom told Al Arabiya on condition of anonymity.
Skipping down a bit, here's what they seem to have in mind, obviously a bit sketchy at this point.
Members of the assembly are reportedly considering forming a collective ruling body and scrapping the model of Ayatollah Khomeini as a way out of the civil crisis that has engulfed Tehran in a series of protests,
The discussions have taken place in a series of secret meetings convened in the holy city of Qom and included Jawad al-Shahristani, the supreme representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the foremost Shiite leader in Iraq.
An option being considered is the resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president following condemnation by the United States and other European nations for violence and human rights violations against unarmed protestors.
This is a huge development. One of the biggest questions I and others have had since the Iranian protests/revolt/revolution began was whether Mousavi would be any different in tangible effect (Hizballah & Hamas support, etc.) than Ahmadinejad and whether Rafsanjani was seeking to sack 'Supreme' Leader Khamenei simply to acquire the powerful position for himself. That question perhaps may have been answered today.
My ears first perked up when word made it through the grapevines over the weekend that Rafsanjani had been meeting with other Ayatollahs and clerics in Qom, and had among them a representative of Iraq's Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Why? Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2007 made two very critical statements: that "I am a servant of all Iraqis, there is no difference between a Sunni, a Shiite or a Kurd or a Christian," and that Islam can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. You will never hear such words slip past the lips of Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. Ever.
Sistani's presence at the Rafsanjani talks in Qom, Iran, through a representative brings therefore added significance. And the al-Arabiya report above seems to suggest that Rafsanjani is not seeking Sistani's support for superficial reasons.
In November 2007 at National Review Online, I wrote about this aspect of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, including a reference to another analysis I had written earlier in the spring.
In fact, what exists is a deep rivalry between the revolutionary Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the traditionalist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, both claiming authority over the Shi'a faith. While the Khomeinist revolutionary Khameini clearly believes in Shi'a theocracy, the Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani believes that the faith can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. And while the Iranians work to spin the growing Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda as Americans "negotiating with terrorists," Sistani himself has always had open channels of communication with American forces and the Iraqi government.
Why does this matter for Iran and Iranians? Pay close attention here, for Iraq's Sistani carries great weight among the Iranian Shi'a faithful.
Sistani's appeal does not end at the Iraqi border, as Iranians increasingly observe his leadership with interest and fondness. Some are "intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi'ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq," which is fundamentally different in approach than the Iranian theocratic brand of dictated observance and obedience. The Boston Globe's Anne Barnard reports that within Tehran's own central bazaar, "an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric."
If that didn't quite sink in, go read that paragraph again. many Iranian merchants have been sending their 20% tithes to Sistani, not Khamenei. Since at least 2007.
I spoke to the significance of Rafsanjani seeking Sistani's support earlier on 'The Steve Schippert Show' on RFC Radio just before the al-Arabiya story broke. His name is an attention-getter for those aware of players and forces in both Iran and Iraq. And for good reason.
Perhaps in Iran, just as in Iraq today, true democracy can exist "without theological conflict" with the Shi'a faith. And perhaps the most unlikely cast of available men in Iran are set to bring that to be. Perhaps only something close, or closer.
But whatever the change, and the extent of the change - and it appears the intent is significant change and not simply a game of Shuffling Ayatollahs - it will be positive for Iranians, for the region, for Americans and for the entire world. I think it is nearly inevitable at his point, and time is not on the regime's side.
I have been telling friends and peers for a week that we are witnessing the most significant - if relative slow motion - event since the attacks of 9/11. Most have shrugged that off. Well, when one considers the potential effects afoot, this may prove more significant than 9/11. (Think the possible implications for client terrorist organizations Hizballah and Hamas when the cash cow disappears.)
Because whatever the pasts of Rafsanjani and Mousavi - and they are significantly unpalatable - they appear to be taking on the face of the people, the face of a Revolution. Hizballah and Hamas thugs were brought in by the regime to quell the demonstrators and have killed Iranians in the process. Rafsanjani and Mousavi will have to "dance with who brung ya," and it was not Hamas or Hizballah. The people will have little stomach for supporting those who murdered their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.
And that is a reality the realists among us will have to accept. Before it's easy to condemn the losers and support the winners. Now.
Regime Change Iran. It's not just a slogan for the Persian diaspora. It's coming.
UPDATE: The audio archives of the above mentioned Steve Schippert Show episode that discussed the significance of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani at Rafsanjani's Iranian talks before the above news broke have been published and can be heard (stream) and downloaded here.
UPDATE II: Rafsanjani Has Votes To Remove Khamenei?