WASHINGTON, November 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Assembly of Experts is one of the country's most powerful institutions, as the 86-member body has the power to select and dismiss the country's supreme leader. But candidates for the upcoming assembly elections have to be approved by Iran's conservative Council of Guardians.
The council has decided that only one-third of the hopefuls for the December 15 election meet the criteria to be candidates. Most importantly, it appears that reformists and fundamentalists are being kept out of the race in favor of traditionalists.
The vetting of assembly candidates by the Council of Guardians represents a significant effort by traditionalists -- the generation that has ruled the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 -- to fight back against a younger generation of fundamentalists that is symbolized by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his purported religious guide, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, a spokesman for the Guardians Council, announced on November 28 that 163 candidates are eligible for the upcoming election, Fars News Agency reported.
When registration ended in October, 492 people were officially listed as potential candidates, meaning that only one-third of those who applied to be candidates were accepted by the Council of Guardians. Some races were left uncontested as a result.
The Interior Ministry published the lists of approved candidates on November 29 and, on the same day, several political parties issued lists of the candidates they will support.
Trends In The Rejections
There were complaints about those who were disqualified, but Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi denied that the reformists were singled out, "Hemayat" reported on November 29.
In the days preceding the announcement of eligible candidates, several trends became apparent. The first trend -- which is not unexpected -- was the Guardians Council's rejection of pro-reform candidates, even if they were incumbents.
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (Fars file photo)The second noticeable trend was the Guardians Council's rejection of candidates associated with Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, the fundamentalist cleric that Ahmadinejad allegedly follows.
Qassem Ravanbakhsh, the editor of Mesbah-Yazdi's weekly "Parto Sokhan," said that members of Mesbah-Yazdi's Imam Khomeini Institute failed the eligibility exams, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on November 20. They passed the written exam, he added, but failed the oral tests.
"Right now, we are looking for independent candidates in other provinces whose qualifications have been approved," Ravanbakhsh said. "Of course, I must say that our list might have names in common with the Qom Theological Lecturers Association." That statement can only muddy the waters because it suggests that the fundamentalist candidates might not be part of any known faction or they might be backed by a mainstream theological association.
Mohsen Gharavian, one of Mesbah-Yazdi's students, announced that although he registered as a candidate in Qom he would instead run as a candidate in Northern Khorasan Province because there is only one candidate there, "Ayande-yi No" reported on November 16. Gharavian also claimed that he no longer cares to associate himself with Mesbah-Yazdi supporters. The final Interior Ministry list showed that Gharavian remained a candidate in Qom.
Traditional Conservative Advance
As the Guardians Council eliminated reformists and fundamentalists, it approved the qualifications of the traditional conservatives. Then it moved these candidates to constituencies where they would not face any competition, according to "Ayande-yi No" on November 16.
Moving candidates around is a new development, but the vetting of candidates for elected office has been used often to shape the course of politics in Iran. It is for this reason that the requirements to serve in the Assembly of Experts have grown more restrictive since it was first created in 1979. Of the 72 members elected then, only 55 were clerics. This first assembly existed for just a few months, and its function was to draft the Islamic Republic's new constitution.
At the next assembly election in 1982 it was determined that only those trained in and capable of interpreting Islamic law (ijtihad), and therefore capable of recognizing religious sources of emulation, were eligible.
Only the testimony of three well-known, high-level seminary professors or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself -- attesting to possession of the required skills -- was enough for someone to qualify as a candidate.
By 1990, the regulations for candidacy were made even more restrictive, and prospective candidates had to show proof that they had acquired the rank of mujtahid (one who can interpret religious law).
A session of the Assembly of Experts (Fars file photo)They would have to undergo oral and written exams unless they were given an exemption from the new supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The number of selectors was reduced, furthermore, with only the highly conservative Guardians Council examining eligibility. These new requirements eliminated nearly every leftist cleric. A reported 62 of 178 applicants failed, and seven withdrew.
New standards were added again for the 1998 assembly elections. All potential candidates had to demonstrate the "proper political inclination." Fewer than half of the 396 applicants were accepted by the Guardians Council, but some incumbents were allowed to run even though they failed the ijtihad examination, with the Guardians Council arguing that Khomeini had previously approved their credentials.
All of these restrictions and the limited number of candidates for the Assembly of Experts indicate that these will not be the most competitive of races, nor will campaigning for these important elections be dramatic. If the traditionalists retain their hold on the assembly they will have made a dent in the armor of the political machine of Ahmadinejad and his followers. This will undermine the illusion of fundamentalist inevitability, and it could motivate other political factions to participate in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
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