The contest is about who will become the next marja at- taqlid, the supreme religious arbiter of law and observances for the world's 100 million Shia Muslims. The outcome will decide whether Iran's leadership, already battered by worsening economic woes,can still claim legitimacy in pursuing Khomeini's revolutionary experiment of 1979.
Nobody expects the government or the Islamic Republic to collapse but the dispute could split Shia Islam into official and unofficial versions. The issue is probably of greater importance to the future of Iran than the price of oil, the American policy of "active containment", or attacks by the People's Mujahedin, a much weaker force inside Iran than in the Iranian exile community.
Iran's radicals are pushing the candidacy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who inherited the constitutional title of Revolutionary Leader upon Khomeini's death in 1989. But the 55-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei has few religious credentials.
In fact, the whole idea of the marja being so blatantly imposed by politicians runs against centuries of tradition in Shia Islam, a sect that broke off from orthodox Sunnism 1,300 years ago in a dispute over who should succeed to the Islamic caliphate.Most experts say that insistence on Ayatollah Khamenei as the official marja would probably not be accepted by most adherents of the Shia faith, who would continue to promote other unofficial marjas with their financial and moral support.
"The marja is not designed by election or appointment. It's a question of one's heart and soul. The results speak for themselves. Out of 200,000 mullahs, so far only 50, or at best 100, among the most insignificant, have publicly supported Khamenei,'' said Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the exiled first president of the Islamic Iran.
Ayatollah Khamenei has garnered more support than that. But even in Khomeini's lifetime, a significant number of mullahs opposed his fundamental principle, that of velayat-e faqih, the rule of the jurisprudent, or the idea that the church should take over the state.
The Islamic revolutionaries are unnerved by the possibility that a new Shia marja could possibly call the mullahs back into the mosques and the religious schools. That would mean leaving not only government but also the rich foundations that manage assets confiscated from the deposed Shah's elite.
Ayatollah Khamenei would have dearly liked to become the new marja after Khomeini's death, but could not push it through. The post passed temporarily to Ayatollah Araki, a venerable, blind and deaf centenarian whose death this month triggered the crisis.
"The battle is absolutely unequal. On one side stands a man who has all the advantages of the state apparatus, the press, the media, the security forces and an army of young zealots ready to crush any dissident. On the other side stand a handful of old men, most of them living under house arrest, with no access to the outside world, let alone the media, their telephone lines controlled, if not cut, and few people allowed to enter their houses," said Ayatollah Dr Mehdi Rohani, a Paris-based Shia
Sixty million people may make Iran the most important Shia nation, but it will still be difficult for non-Iranians to accept the spiritual leadership of somebody who is also the head of a foreign state.
No obvious candidate for marja has stood out since the death a year ago of the last of the great traditional scholars, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpaygani. Some insiders say people will follow religious leaders who oppose Khomeini's view of the clergy's role in government, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Rohani, his brother Sadegh Rohani, Ayatollah Hassan Qomi Tabataba'i or Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Others say Ayatollahs Vahid Khorasani, Mirza Javad Tabrizi, Behjat or Fazel Lankarani could be favoured.
Of the Islamic revolutionaries, Ayatollah Husseinali Montazeri has the most religious authority and was designated by Khomeini as successor in 1985. But he argued over corruption and human rights with Khomeini, who demoted him three months before his death.
Ayatollah Montazeri is still under a cloud and reinstatement is unlikely, since he could eclipse Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he has stubbornly criticised. The daily newspaper, Islamic Republic, which reflects Ayatollah Khamenei's views, even felt it necessary to publish a denial that any petitions for the reinstatment of Ayatollah Montazeri had been circulated by clerics in Qom, the international centre of Shia learning on the edge of the desert south of Tehran. Islamic Republic and other newspapers are now publishing petitions from little-known clerics in favour of Ayatollah Khamenei, a slight, bespectacled,man whose arm was badly injured in a bomb blast in the early years of the republic.
Speaking at various occasions and in different places, Ayatollah Khamenei's supporters have tried to play down the importance of purely religious learning.
"It's correct that the marja must have full knowledge of the holy religion, but it is more important that he is informed about what is happening in the world, particularly in the social, political and economic fields," said Ayatollah Nateq Nuri, Iran's parliamentary Speaker.
Such statements only go to show how much the Iranian leadership is skating on thin ideological ice. Public opinion has also been alienated by years of insistence upon intense public religious observance, somewhat akin, perhaps, to the possible effect in the West of ordering Christmas to be celebrated every day.
Ordinary Iranians are reluctant to see yet more intrusion into their private beliefs and preferences, the essential building block of support that leads to the emergence of a true Shia marja at-taqlid, several of whom can lead differing schools of thought at the same time.
Ironically, Mr Bani-Sadr, the former president, sees a parallel to the way the Shah's power base narrowed before he was deposed by the Islamic revolution in 1979.
"Reza Shah ended for ever the 2,500-year-old Iranian monarchy because he destroyed the very foundations and traditions of the monarchy," Mr Bani-Sadr said. "Now, it is Khamenei's turn to destroy the post of marja."Reuse content