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Talking politics, diabetes, and socks with Iran’s most liberal Grand Ayatollah

Bobby Ghosh
Red socks? Really?
By Bobby Ghosh
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Qom, Iran

Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei is distracted by my socks.

We’re seated—shoeless, in the Iranian custom—no more than a couple of feet from each other in his cramped, windowless office, and throughout our hour-long interview, Saanei has been sneaking glances at my feet. My socks are red, an old affectation of mine, and they seem the more incongruous for the modest setting. I can’t tell if he disapproves, but his attentions make me feel self-conscious, as if I’ve turned up to meet one of Iran’s most revered clerics in Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt.

Saanei’s own socks are thick and grey, in keeping with his understated mullah’s tunic and robe. Apart from his title, there’s nothing ostentatious about the Grand Ayatollah. His modest office is on a nondescript street of Qom, Iran’s center of religious learning. Aside from a small sign, there’s nothing to indicate that this is the seat of a marjah al-taqlid, or one deserving of emulation, as Shia Islam’s highest clerics are known. A solitary guard sits by the door, taking only a desultory interest in the comings and goings of strangers.

Bobby Ghosh

Inside, next to an alcove where visitors must leave their shoes in cubby-holes along one wall, is a small, well-lit prayer room. The carpets on the floor are beautiful, as you would expect in Iran, but they are cheap, obviously machine-made. Saanei’s high chair, at one end of the room, has no ornamental flourishes: it is higher than others, but that is to allow the diminutive cleric to get a good look at his flock.

Bobby Ghosh

There’s nothing here to suggest the occupant’s high office. Grand Ayatollahs are often likened to cardinals, but that comparison flatters the Catholic clergymen. Since there is no Shia equivalent of a pope, Grand Ayatollahs don’t answer to any higher temporal authority—not in matters of religion, anyway. Believers are free to choose their own marjah, regardless of their location, and must send them religious tithes.

A Grand Ayatollah of Saanei’s stature and age (he’s either 77 or 78, no-one’s quite sure) might have millions of followers around the world, and his annual collection of tithes may run into hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars. (I’ve been warned in advance that it would be the height of bad manners to ask how much he gets.)

By the standards of Qom, a deeply conservative city, Saanei is something of a liberal.

The money is typically spent on charity, and the maintenance of religious schools and hospitals. Some clerics have spun their religious takings into giant business empires: A 2013 Reuters investigation revealed that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, controls a conglomerate worth tens of billions of dollars.

Saanei has a reputation for financial probity to go with his standing as a modernistic theologian. By the standards of Qom, a deeply conservative city, he is something of a liberal, having issued progressive rulings on matters ranging from contraception and in vitro fertilization (both are permissible), to intellectual property rights (they should be respected). His website, available in English, lists scores of his pronouncements, and visitors to his office are handed booklets with some highlights.

His advocacy for equality between men and women is especially remarkable: Saanei argues that women have the right to occupy the highest religious and political offices, which makes him an outlier among the high clergy.

Some of Saanei’s “jurisprudential views” listed in the booklet appear odd at first glance, but I learn later that these are responses to specific questions from his followers. For instance, Saanei decreed that “bird droppings are pure,” because he was asked if birds can be kept as pets, apparently by someone anxious that the presence of droppings in their home might constitute defilement of their copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

More than any of this, however, Saanei is known for his political views. A protege of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he was an enthusiastic participant in the Islamic revolution of 1979 that Khomeini led, and served as the head of the powerful Guardian Council—which can veto any legislation passed by parliament, overturn decisions by the president, and vets all candidates for elected office—from 1980-83.

He tells me that the problem lies, not in the structure of power, but in the abuse of it.

But in recent years, Saanei has become a critic of the regime. He condemned the violence (paywall) against protests after the controversial 2009 elections, and the arrest of politicians like Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the leading candidates. He declared the result a fraud, and said it would be haram, or forbidden under the faith, for anyone to cooperate with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who was declared the winner in the vote.

His outspokenness raised the hopes of many Iranian reformists that Saanei would take the mantle of their hero, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who had once been Khomeini’s heir-apparent, but was dismissed after publicly criticizing the mass execution of the regime’s political opponents in the late 1980s. Khomeini took away Montazeri’s title—although it’s unclear he has the authority to do so—and had him placed under house arrest. He was released a few years before his death, and kept up his dissent until his death in 2009.

The day after Montazeri’s funeral, hardliners loyal to Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, attacked Saanei’s office (paywall) and beat up his staff, sending an unsubtle warning of what would happen if the Grand Ayatollah tried to assume the deceased Montazeri’s political role. There were attempts to take away Saanei’s title of marjah al-taqlid, but Khamenei lacks Khomeini’s combination of political and spiritual power.

In any case, Saanei is no dissident. Unlike Montazeri, who came to regret his role in creating the political structure of post-revolution Iran—in which the Supreme Leader has more power than the elected president—Saanei has never fully broken with the regime. He tells me that the problem lies, not in the structure of power, but in the abuse of it: “I don’t think the political structure needs to be changed: We have a constitution and it clearly defines the roles of the various bodies. But I think the thinking of some people must be changed.”

He is still, I notice, stealing glances at my red socks.

Saanei’s answers to my first few questions, about religious matters, are long and carefully structured, delivered with the somewhat dry erudition of a theologian. He has for the most part been expressionless.

But that changes shortly after tea arrives. One of his staff places a bowl of sugar cubes next to my cup, and a small container of dried white mulberries next to the Grand Ayatollah’s. Saanei uses the dried fruit as a kind of sweetener, biting into one before each sip of his tea.

He notices that I’m not using any sugar, and asks why. When I explain that I’m diabetic, he becomes suddenly animated. “I’m diabetic, too!” he says, pushing the berries toward me. “That’s why I eat these…. Here, try one.” When I hesitate, he breaks into a big smile. “Don’t worry, they are good for you,” he says. “I eat lots of them.”

Who am I to argue with a Grand Ayatollah? The berries are delicious. But more important, I sense that we’ve made a connection through our common ailment. From this point on, Saanei is less formal, his answers more expansive, and his face more expressive. By the time our discussion has turned toward political questions, I feel he’s completely relaxed and candid.

He notes my enjoyment of the berries—I’ve been dipping into them while he speaks—with evident delight, and signals his staffer to bring a larger bowl. He is still, I notice, stealing glances at my red socks.

Saanei grows especially animated when talking about his disappointment with the body he once headed, the Guardian Council.

Saanei grows especially animated when talking about his disappointment with the body he once headed, the Guardian Council. It was created by Khomeini to protect the revolution’s Islamic ideals, but has turned into a crude political instrument by which hardliners beat back any efforts toward reform. In the past few elections, the Council has capriciously disqualified large numbers of reformists, effectively ensuring parliament remains in control of conservatives.

The Council will once again be under the spotlight in the coming weeks, as it vets candidates for February’s twin elections—to parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a body responsible for naming and supervising the Supreme Leader. Reformist politicians have told me their greatest fear is that the Council will once again exercise its power to disqualify it deems insufficiently conservative. I ask Saanei if he’s worried that might happen.

“I’m not worried, I’m sure they will disqualify many,” he shrugs. “They will only allow candidates they like.” Even so, he wants reformists to apply in droves for candidacy. For one thing, he says, “it is a duty of people to participate.” For another, he sees the very process of applying as a political act, even if disqualification is inevitable.

If the Council is forced to reject thousands of applications, that would in itself tell a story that, in the limited scope available to reformists, might be spun into a kind of political victory. The reformists, Saanei tells me, “must make sure there is a high political cost to disqualifying lots of people.”

As much as the Grand Ayatollah wants reformists to win, he is not pleased with the performance of president Hassan Rouhani. In Saanei’s view, the president has failed to walk his reformist talk. “When they want to win elections, they make many promises, but when they come to power they forget,” he says. “This is a feature of all those in power.”

The reformists “must make sure there is a high political cost to disqualifying lots of people.”

He is especially disappointed in the fact that Rouhani has failed to release political prisoners such as Mousavi. “He said he’s released people in prison for fighting for human and political rights, but he hasn’t kept his promise.” In Saanei’s view, Rouhani has moved away from his reformist stance toward Iran’s political center—and the Grand Ayatollah is not pleased. “Those who supported him, helped him win the election, were forgotten. Instead, he went to the other side, to those who had different views, ideas.”

I wonder if this is not just a matter of practical politics. Many of Rouhani’s supporters say the president has no choice but to placate hardliners, since they control most of the real levers of power, but Saanei is having none of that. “It is easy to say the problems are with the judiciary and the legislature, but when you knew others had the power, why did you make promises?”

Saanei feels Rouhani could have made more of the political capital he earned from his landslide election victory of 2013. “With the support he had, the turnout… He could have done something.”

Does Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers this summer qualify as “something”? Saanei allows it is a foreign-policy achievement for Rouhani: “He helped to show the world that we are not a war-like, belligerent nation.” But he remains skeptical of the deal’s promised payoff. He worries that sanctions relief will merely put more money into the bank accounts of those with connections to the Revolutionary Guards, and the clerical and political elite. “I hope the unfrozen assets are not stolen by someone,” he says, careful not to point a finger any any specific group. “But if the money gets into the hands of ordinary people, yes, then we can say [Rouhani’s] foreign policy has been good.”

At the end of the interview, Saanei looks once more at my feet. I sense that he is hesitating to comment on my choice of socks—perhaps he thinks it is unseemly for an Ayatollah to discuss such mundane matters. So I give him the opening by complimenting his own socks. He seizes on this, and launches into an exposition on the virtues of warm hosiery.

Then, with a flourish, he pulls off his grey socks, to reveal a second pair underneath—hand-knit from lambswool. These betray a dash of style: two blue diamonds are dyed into each.

Bobby Ghosh

At first, I take these as the Grand Ayatollah’s one concession to luxury, but I’m wrong: he wears them for his health. It is especially important for us diabetics, he tells me, to keep our feet warm and moist.

The Grand Ayatollah holds them aloft. “You should be wearing these,” he says, with a last, pitying glance at my red socks. “I’m an old man, but look: my skin is not dry or cracked.”

As he leaves the room, still chuckling, I’m trying to decide whether, in his choice of hosiery, the marjah al-taqlid is worthy of emulation.

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