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ISTANBUL -- Since Iran's outbreak first flared in the holy city of Qom, religious leaders have resisted calls for quarantines, protested orders to close shrines, cast the coronavirus as an American conspiracy, and promoted traditional or Islamic medicine as a panacea for covid-19, the disease it causes.

Their actions have angered senior health officials and stoked long-existing doubts within the Iranian population about whether member of the clergy are fit to rule.

In Iran, a Shiite theocracy, clerics preside over and participate in all matters of the state. But their response to the pandemic may be weakening the clergy's political stature, at a time when its influence was already under pressure, political analysts say.

As the religious elite fumbled and deaths from the virus mounted -- Iran has now reported more than 6,900 deaths and more than 118,000 infections -- the country's powerful security services have stepped in to conduct disease surveillance, disinfect public spaces and even oversee victims' burials, a role long reserved for civilian authorities and Shiite clerics.

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The pandemic, Iranians inside the country and analysts say, has highlighted the clergy's dwindling relevance while granting the armed forces an opportunity to consolidate power. It's a dynamic with implications for Iran's political future, as the battle heats up to succeed the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a more modern middle class grows tired of theocratic government.

"The clergy's apparent resistance to the state's virus control mandates will likely be marked as a point of no return for public mistrust of clerics and suspicion about their ability to serve as rational authorities in the political or social sphere," Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a recent policy analysis.

According to Khalaji, a former Qom-trained theologian, the clerics' "spectacular failure" to respond adequately to the outbreak "will make power players less interested in seeking ideological or political support from the clergy post-Khamenei."

"I can tell that [the clergy] have lost more credibility" among the people as a result of the outbreak, said Mohammad, 70, a retired resident of the capital, Tehran. He spoke on the condition of using only his first name so he could freely criticize the religious establishment.

"They could have repaired their image by helping people or giving emotional support" to victims, Mohammad said of the clerics. "But they ruined it further by weighing in on things they don't know about, such as medicine."

An sketch was posted last month on the Telegram channel of a mainstream news outlet, the Iranian Labor News Agency, before being swiftly taken down. The cartoon shows two traditional healers, including a turbaned cleric, preparing to treat a coronavirus patient on all fours with beakers of camel urine and violet leaf oil, remedies hailed by some clergymen as surefire cures for covid-19.

On the wall hangs a picture of Khamenei donning a nurse's cap and putting a finger to his lips, signaling critics to remain silent.

The cartoon depicting the huckster healers appeared to hit a nerve with the clerical-run government. While the artist, Reza Aghili, lives in exile in Turkey beyond the reach of authorities, the news director of ILNA and the manager of its Telegram channel were arrested late last month for allegedly insulting "Islam's sacred principles" and religious leaders, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog group.

"In my opinion," Aghili said in an interview, "not only the clergy's popularity but Islam's popularity in general is the lowest it has ever been."

At the Supreme National Security Council, Iran's highest strategic decision-making body, Revolutionary Guard "commanders exert greater influence than civilian or clerical decision-makers," said Ali Alfoneh, author of "Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards is Transforming Iran From a Theocracy to a Military Dictatorship."

"Even the highest-ranking clergy, and founders of the Islamic republic, are sooner or later denounced as traitors, counterrevolutionary, foreign agents and led to prison by the IRGC," Alfoneh said.

And even as Iran continues to struggle with the largest outbreak in the Middle East, the head of Iran's Islamic Development Organization, a cultural and religious body linked to the supreme leader, said Monday that all mosques in Iran will reopen this month.

A Section on 05/17/2020

Print Headline: Iran clerics' virus response raises doubts about rule

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