The death of Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the most popular singer of Iranian classical music in recent times, has once again brought into sharp relief Ayatollah Khamenei’s attitude toward prominent political, religious and cultural figures who criticized him during their lifetime.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian died on October 8 and was buried on October 10, surrounded by a legion of fans. Countless prominent cultural and political figures offered their condolences and paid tribute to Shajarian but, at the time of writing, Khamenei himself has remained silent.
Khamenei’s behavior here has precedent. On the deaths of many prominent Iranians who had spoken against or offended him, the Supreme Leader has either pointedly not acknowledged them – or passed comment enveloped in sarcasm.
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic faces a quandary when his critics pass away. If he offers condolences, his own supporters will be confused as to how to justify their attacks on the deceased or on ceremonies to honor them. On the other hand, by not saying anything at all, he may come across as vindictive. In the case of Shajarian, Khamenei has instead decided to treat the death with silence. Speaker of parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and judiciary head Ebrahim Raeesi – both of whom come from the province of Razavi Khorasan, as does Khamanei, and as did Shajarian – are following his lead.
In early years after the Islamic Revolution, Khamenei in fact had a better relationship with Shajarian than with other officials of the Islamic Republic because both of them hailed from the holy city of Mashhad. In one campaign video, President Rouhani had said that it was Ayatollah Khamenei who introduced him to Shajarian. This part of the video was later cut out.
Before the death of the Persian maestro, Tehran City Council had decided to rename a street in the Iranian capital in Shajarian’s honor. But it never came to be, as the Supreme Leader opposed the decision.
This vindictive attitude is one the traits that Khamenei has inherited from Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual founder of the Islamic Republic. Restrictions on burial and mourning ceremonies and the refusal to offer condolences has been the modus operandi of the Islamic Republic since the very beginning. Khomeini blocked funeral services for several prominent clergymen who had spoken against him, with one notable example of this being the passing of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari in 1986. Ayatollah Reza Sadr, who was due to read the prayers over Shariatmadari’s body, as he had requested in his will, was instead arrested. This led to protests by both religious authorities and prominent clergymen, including Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, Ayatollah Marashi Najafi and Ayatollah Hasan Tabatabie Qomi.
Sorry For Your Loss – But No Further
Ayatollah Khomeini did at least offer his condolences after the death of Sheikh Bahaodin Mahallati, his comrade in the 1963 uprising against the Shah. But contrary to tradition, not only did he not hold a mourning ceremony for Mahallati himself, but prevented the Mousavi Zanjani brothers, both ayatollahs in their own right, and the clergyman Mehdi Haeri Yazdi, the son of his teacher at Qom seminary, to hold such a ceremony in his stead at Tehran’s Arg Mosque.
By contrast, Khamenei is at pains to pay tribute to those who die while still in his good books. After the 1995 death of Mehdi Bazargan, the former secretary-general of the Freedom Movement and the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic – who was forced to resign after the US embassy takeover in 1979 – Ayatollah Khamenei called him “one of the pioneers of promoting and clarifying pure Islamic ideas with a novel language, logic and method.” Later, when the vigilante paramilitary group Ansar-e Hezbollah attacked commemoration ceremonies for Bazargan, members of President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s administration brandished Khamenei’s message as a means to condemn the attacks.
In some cases the Supreme Leader’s words of praise have rung hollow. In 2002, after the death of Yadollah Sahabi, a prominent member of the Freedom Movement and a national hero to many Iranians in the campaign to nationalize Iranian oil in 1953, Ayatollah Khamenei publicly praised him for his fight against the Shah. For a very short while after the 1979 revolution Sahabi had served a minister without portfolio, and later as an MP for four years, but his advocacy of democracy and pluralism had led to a rupture between him and the regime of the Islamic Republic. “After he was out of the executive and the legislative branches, his differences of opinion with government officials did not drag him into the pit of maliciousness and bias,” wrote Khamenei. “He was pious, virtuous and a man of good conduct.”
Khamenei’s message had been addressed to Yadollah Sahabi’s children in general. At the time Sahabi’s son, Ezzatolah Sahabi, a well-known opposition politician, was better known to the public and most officials had offered their condolences specifically to him. Yadollah Sahabi had in fact spent much of the last year of his death trying to secure the release of his son from prison. Khamenei refused to say anything at all when Ezzatolah Sahabi himself died in 2011.
Asking God to Forgive Montazeri’s “Transgressions”
One attempted compromise made by the Supreme Leader in the past has been to send obviously sardonic messages of condolence. When Ayatollah Montazeri, the one-time designated heir to Ayatollah Khomeini, died in 2009, Khamenei said in an ornately worded message that he hoped Montazeri would be subject to "God's lenience" after failing a "test" – referring to the deceased’s criticism of the mass killings of political prisoners in 1988. It did not play well for him, sparking public anger and even street demonstrations.
Khamenei allowed Ayatollah Montazeri to be buried next to the Shrine of Masoumeh in Qom, where his son Mohammad Montazeri had been buried. Supporters of the Supreme Leader praised him for this show of “magnanimity”: something that Mohsen Kadivar, a scholar and professor of Islamic studies, has called “Guardianship of the Graves”.
According to one interpretation of Velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), the founding principle of the Islamic Republic — the interpretation that Khamenei and his supporters share — “the Supreme Leader is the guardian not only of life but also of death, not only of the home in this world but also of the final resting place. Like everything else in life or death, who is buried where and what dead body gets which grave falls within the authority of the Supreme Leader.”
In recent years Khamenei’s messages of condolences have attracted greater and greater attention. At the funeral of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2017, while reciting the prayer for the dead over his body, he notably omitted one Arabic sentence: “O Lord, we know not of him except good deeds and you are the one who is all-knowing.”
In 2015, when former President Mohammad Khatami’s sister died, Khamenei offered his condolences to their mother but not to Khatami himself. When Khatami’s mother died, the Supreme Leader similarly issued a message, but once again did not address it to the former president.
Neither did Khamenei offered his condolences after the death of Ezzatolah Sahabi in 2011 and of Ebrahim Yazdi, the first foreign minister of the Islamic Republic in the government of Mehdi Bazargan, in 2017. During the funeral ceremonies Haleh Sahabi, Ezzatolah’s daughter, died of cardiac arrest after clashing with security forces.
A month before the death of Shajarian, Ayatollah Khamenei did offer his condolences for the death of Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, a former member of the powerful Guardian Council and a former attorney general of Iran but an consistent proponent of radical political reform in Iran. The reason, perhaps, was that one time Saanei officially had recognized Khamenei as a “source of emulation” and during his last years he was not as uncompromising in his opposition to Khamenei.
It has taken some time but, gradually, we have learned better what Khamenei thinks of his critics and when, how and if he bothers to offer his condolences after they die.