In a photo of Eid al-Fetr observances, a cleric stands beside the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandsons, Yasser and Ali Khomeini. He is seen praying in front of their brother Hassan. The cleric is Seraj al-Din Mousavi, a close friend of the men’s father, Ahmad Khomeini, who was Ayatollah Khomeini’s youngest child. The photograph was circulated a few days ago, following Hassan Khomeini’s highly publicized trip to Pakistan. Iranian politicians know Mousavi as a cleric with ties to prominent reformists ties. They also know he is closely linked to the Khomeini family and has long wielded a degree of influence with Pakistan’s Shia minority. His range of connections tends to unnerve hardline conservatives in Iran.
Mousavi has always hedged his bets. In the early days of the Islamic Republic, he was an ally of Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was once expected to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini as supreme leader. Mousavi served as Montazeri’s intermediary to Ayatollah Khomeini, and his daughter has also married a member of Montazeri’s inner circle. But Montazeri grew increasingly critical of Ayatollah Khomeini throughout the late 1980s, and split with him in 1989 over mass executions. Instead of becoming the supreme leader when Khomeini died later that year, he found himself under house arrest.
Yet even after the Khomeini-Montazeri split, Mousavi maintained a relationship with Khomeini’s office and stayed friends with Ahmad. In 1985, Ayatollah Khomeini appointed him general commander of the young government’s revolutionary committees. He also served as the representative of the valiyeh faqih, or supreme leader. When Ayatollah Khomeini died, Mousavi was forced to choose between the two roles. Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, also planted one of his own allies on the Relief Committee, an ideologically-based charitable organization that was then under Mousavi’s supervision.
Mousavi was not a great admirer of Khamenei, and like much of Khomeini’s camp, was not particularly interested in bipartisanship. Tensions mounted until June 18, 1989, when Interior Minister Abdollah Nuri wrote a letter to Khamenei reporting Mousavi’s resignation as the representative to the valiyeh faqih. Khamenei gave his consent, noting that he still recognized Mousavi as his representative to the committees.
In 1990, the committees were integrated into the security services, and Mousavi’s position was eliminated. By then, however, Mousavi already had a new project on the go: In 1988, Ahmad Khomeini had appointed him director of foreign affairs for the Khomeini Institute, a religious educational institution based in the clerical city of Qom. The office had been formed from two subsidiaries, “Translation,” which translated Khomeini’s works into Urdu, and “The Subcontinent,” which packaged the late ayatollah’s work for Indian and Pakistani audiences. Thus, Mousavi had his first contact with Pakistan. Mohammad Khatami, who was then head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, was happy to take advantage of his experience. He ordered Mousavi to Pakistan to take charge of Iran’s cultural attaché. This move marked Mousavi’s first personal experience with Iran’s eastern neighbor.
Since then, he has kept one foot in Pakistan and the other in Iran. His family, too, lived in Pakistan and attended university there. In those days, Ahmad Khomeini’s wife, Fatemeh Tabatabaei, delivered speeches in Pakistan at Mousavi’s invitation. Now, some of the Khomeini family has joined them. Hassan Khomeini, Ahmad’s son, also travels to Pakistan to give speeches. In August 2009, Hassan’s visit to Pakistan caused a stir since it meant he would not participate in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration ceremony. More recently, another Khomeini grandson, Ali Ashrafi, has started visiting Pakistan.
Around the time of the 2009 elections, Iranian state media reported that Mousavi had left for Paris, but those close to Hassan revealed that Mousavi had in fact gone to Pakistan to help set up the Imam Khomeini University, where he would lay the building’s cornerstone himself. Mousavi was by then deeply entrenched in Iran’s affairs in Pakistan. He had been head of the cultural attaché until 1992, and also occupied a leadership role with the Bonyad-e Shahid Martyr’s Foundation. He returned to Iran, but relocated to Pakistan again in 1998 as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador under the administration of president Mohammad Khatami.
Spreading Khomeinism in Pakistan
Ayatollah Khomeini has his own particular circle of supporters in Karachi, Pakistan. A seminary and a charity hospital there both bear his name. The Naseran-e Imam Foundation has for years paid for Pakistani Shias to travel to Tehran for special occasions, and to make pilgrimages to Khomeini’s tomb. Mousavi’s 26-year presence in Karachi has inspired Hassan Khomeini to pursue even more ambitious steps. The Imam Khomeini University, which is comprised of gender-segregated “brothers” and “sisters” sections, is now charged with training Shia proselytizers for Pakistan and other Islamic countries.
The institution counts seminarians in Iran under its umbrella as well. Mousavi maintains a presence on Qom’s Safaiaeh Avenue through the Eqbal Lahouri Library, a favored haunt of Pakistani seminarians that sometimes receives visits from Hassan Khomeini and his brothers, who occasionally perform turban-placement ceremonies for young clerics in training.
Hassan Khomeini’s Pakistan trips – including journeys he made in September 2012 and February 2015 — have been widely publicized, as has this week’s excursion. But he and Mousavi may have racked up more miles than have been reported. Some Iranian hardline conservatives are suspicious of their comings and goings. They claim that ever since Mousavi made his first Pakistan trip in 1990, has he has worked to support Montazeri’s religious authority rather than Khomeini’s, and has raised funds for the dissident cleric’s followers (Montazeri himself died in 2009). Hardline conservatives are also skeptical of Mousavi’s institutional reach, perhaps fearing that that he and Hassan hope to bolster their own religious authority in the region. Mousavi now enjoys an organizational base, a book translated into Urdu, and regular dealings with Pakistani contacts.
But in recent years, Ayatollah Khamenei’s own representative in Karachi has played a more active role. The Imam Khomeini Seminary is no longer under Mousavi’s control. His dealings with the cultural attaché have been cut off. Alternative organizations have been set up for Pakistani seminarians. Even so, it seems that Mousavi has proved a hard man to marginalize. It is a simple enough equation: Mousavi is not only Hassan Khomeini’s foreign affairs representative, but his political deputy as well. No political development takes place involving the Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson without it passing through Mousavi first. This degree of influence makes him intolerable to hardliners in Iran, which in turn makes Pakistan a more comfortable base for him.
Hassan Khomeini’s influence in other countries, meanwhile, has been compromised: in Iraq and Syria, it is all is up in the air; in Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, Khamenei’s investments in his own influence are paying off considerably. All of Iran’s top clerics have long dreamed of building support for themselves among the world’s Shias. Pakistan is one of the few countries where the colonial enterprise of the House of Khomeini has worked to the benefit of Hassan, his brothers, and Mousavi.