WASHINGTON, August 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Buoyed by success in municipal, legislative, and presidential elections in recent years, fundamentalists associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have now set their sights on the Assembly of Experts, the popularly elected body of 86 clerics that supervises and selects Iran's supreme leader.
The fundamentalists want Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, to head the assembly. Their support has put him in competition with Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the assembly's deputy speaker, who lost the presidency to Ahmadinejad in a runoff vote in 2005. Mesbah-Yazdi's supporters shouted down Hashemi-Rafsanjani when he tried to give a speech in Qom on June 4.
A commentary in a conservative weekly connected to Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan" on May 10, also took shots at Hashemi-Rafsanjani when it interpreted regulations on eligibility for the Assembly of Experts. The weekly said that critics of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's stance on the 1979-81 hostage crisis or on the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War are ineligible. So, too, it said, are those who caused delays in the acquisition of peaceful nuclear technology or who advocated backing down in the diplomatic process.
The commentary added that those who have enriched themselves, their families, or their associates are ineligible, too, as are those who were in management positions when millions of Iranians fell below the poverty line. Under these conditions, the commentary continued, some current members of the assembly are no longer eligible for membership.
Mesbah-Yazdi's opponents have retaliated. They have criticized the president's spiritual guide for his lack of activism against the monarchy before Iran's Islamic Revolution. They have also hinted that he is a member of a banned religio-political organization called the Hojjatieh Society. Mesbah-Yazdi has denied Hojjatieh membership. A prominent intellectual and scholar of Islam, Abdolkarim Soroush, backed that denial in a January 30 interview published on roozonline.com, asserting that Mesbah-Yazdi is a follower of Iranian philosopher Ahmad Fardid, who espoused fascistic ideas and derided the value of individual voting.
Success in the assembly has more than a symbolic value. The assembly plays the key role in selecting the supreme leader. But the expectation that the incoming assembly will choose the next supreme leader seems far-fetched. Ayatollah Khamenei is just 66 years old, and Shi'ite clerics can achieve impressive longevity.
There was a rapid turnover in leading Shi'ite clerics in the early 1990s, but when Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei died in 1992, he was 97 years old; Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Golpayegani died in 1993 at the age of 96, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki died in 1994 at more than 100 years old. Predictions of Khamenei's passing seem premature, therefore, as he would only be 75 by the time the incoming assembly's term of office ends.
The rivalry between Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani for leadership of the Assembly of Experts reflects the divisions and rivalries among factions that have appeared in the last two years. In the last few months, there has been talk among the reformists of creating alliances ahead of the assembly balloting in an effort to head off the fundamentalist juggernaut. The former speaker of parliament and current head of the National Trust Party, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, -- was quoted in the June 20 "Kargozaran" daily as saying he is "looking for a coalition more than anyone." But he added that he believes in "a coalition of the efficient, strong, and active forces of the true reformists -- not with opportunists."
To this end, there have been meetings of pro-reform political parties (specifically, the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, the National Trust Party) with pro-reform clerical ones.
This latter group includes the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), the Qom Theological Seminaries (Hozeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), the Society of Teachers and Reformers of the Qom Islamic Theological Center (Majma-yi Mudarissin va Moshaei-i Hozeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), and the Society of the Islamic Students Following the Line of the Imam (Majma-yi Talab-i Khat-i Imam).
There also has been talk of shared lists of candidates the parties might back. There could even be a joint list backed by Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Karrubi, former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, and Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi of the Qom seminaries, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 23.
Setting A Date
The legislature on July 26 approved the general outlines of a bill that would permit holding elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils concurrently this year, Fars News Agency reported. Some 149 out of 219 legislators reportedly backed the bill.
The elections are scheduled for November 17.
But a government spokesman, Gholam-Hussein Elham, said recently that Ahmadinejad's administration opposes holding concurrent elections, Mehr News Agency reported on July 19. The spokesman argued that campaigning for the entities differs, and that holding the elections simultaneously requires additional planning and preparation.
There are other potential logistical difficulties. A bill that would increase the voting age only for municipal elections was recently approved by the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, according to a Mehr News Agency report quoting legislator Kazem Jalali on July 12. The current voting age is 15, and the bill in question would raise the minimum to 18.
The Guardians Council, which supervises Assembly of Experts elections and vets candidates, has announced that it approves concurrent elections.
The Interior Ministry, which runs elections, has already prepared its timetable, culminating in voting on November 17, "Mardom Salari" reported on July 20.
Under the Interior Ministry's scenario, election executive boards will be set up (September 2-6), candidates registered (September 7-13), and paperwork forwarded to the proper authorities by mid-September (September 14-16 from local governorates to the Interior Ministry, and from there to the Guardians Council).
The Guardians Council will then have until October 16 to assess the candidates' qualifications, and two additional days to inform disqualified candidates.
Appeals can be filed from October 19-21, and the Guardians Council's clerical members will review the appeals from October 22-31 and advise the Interior Ministry accordingly. The names of eligible candidates will be announced on November 1, campaigning will take place from November 2-15, and the election will be on November 17.
The Guardians Council's work will continue until late December, as it investigates possible complaints about conduct of the elections and campaigning, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on June 7.
Controversial Vetting Process
Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned in a late-July interview that the law determines the vetting of candidates for the Assembly of Experts, and that this could upset people who have individual preferences, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on July 24. The Guardians Council's vetting of candidates has always been controversial. Disqualifications of parliamentary hopefuls -- particularly incumbents -- met with protests in 2004. It took the supreme leader's intervention to get disqualified cabinet members reinstated in the 2005 presidential election.
Balloting for the Assembly of Experts takes place every eight years. In the past, potential candidates had to demonstrate "ijtihad," the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. They also had to have clean political and legal records, and believe in the Islamic republic's system. In the run-up to the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election, an announcement emerged that all potential candidates must demonstrate the proper political inclination, as well.
In the last Assembly of Experts election in 1998, the Guardians Council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants. It rejected eight of the nine women who applied, and the ninth subsequently withdrew her candidacy. The council allowed a number of incumbents to run again despite their having failed the "ijtihad" examination -- arguing that they could run because Ayatollah Khomeini had approved their credentials for previous elections.
It is therefore unsurprising that questions over the vetting process have preceded the upcoming Assembly of Experts election. At the assembly's September meeting, some members reportedly submitted a motion requiring more stringent academic qualifications -- advocating "absolute ijtihad" rather than simply "relative ijtihad." The daily noted that the former qualification permits one to interpret Islamic law, while the latter qualifies one to issue religious decrees (fatwa). Sponsors of that motion reportedly also wanted the job of vetting candidates withdrawn from the Guardians Council and given to seminarians. They argued that because some council members also compete for the assembly, the normal vetting procedure represents a conflict of interest.
In mid-June, the Interior Ministry declared in a communique that individuals whose "ijtihad" abilities were endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeini need not be vetted by the Guardians Council, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 15. A member of the Assembly of Experts, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, added that there are other people whose "ijtihad" skills have already been tested and proven -- including noted seminarians and appointees of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like the head of the Judiciary and clerics on the Guardians Council.
There also have been suggestions that prospective candidates' religious skills should be examined by the seminaries, rather than the Guardians Council. This is of particular concern in instances when members of the council are candidates themselves.
All this factional jockeying and rivalry could be countered by the actions of the 12-man Guardians Council, which arguably counters any democratic credentials of Iranian elections. This unelected body is the ultimate arbiter in the voting: It has overturned results in the past. All the more notable, then, that its six clerical members are appointed by the supreme leader and the six lawyer members are selected by the Judiciary chief and approved by the parliament. The council has a tendency to reject the candidacies of individuals it fears might aggressively oppose the status quo. Its paring down of available candidates could also have an adverse impact on voter participation.
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