Iran's Ultra-Conservatives May See Chance To Revive 'Wilting' Revolution
By Mazyar Mokti, Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
The hard-line camp of Iran's ruling establishment
has so far quashed a major challenge by reformists. The fight has gone to the
streets and at least 20 people have been killed by official count.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- who has frequently backed the hard-liners -- is
ill, and a succession battle looms.
Will the hard-liners leave the choice of the next supreme leader to chance?
There are signs they won't -- and one of these is the rise of an
ultra-conservative group that has the ideological base, and increasingly the
power, needed to skew the process.
Theocratic, Democratic Tension
One of the great contradictions of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the
juxtaposition of those two words in its name: Islamic and republic.
The juxtaposition is not by accident. The leader of the Islamic Revolution,
Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, conceived of a state guided by a preeminent
theologian whose supreme political position was enshrined in the constitution.
But the constitution itself borrowed many ideas from secular constitutions in
the West, including provisions for an elected government, a parliament,
separation of powers, and rule of law.
Since the founding of the Islamic republic, the tensions between theocracy and
democracy have posed major challenges for the system's survival. In recent
decades, they have twice turned into showdowns on the street: in the student
protests of 1999, and now in the protests over the June presidential election
Both times, the protests applied public pressure on Iran to become more of a
republic, where rule of law reigns supreme. And both times, the protests were
quashed by hard-liners who used the de facto supremacy of the theocracy and
vague revolutionary values to conduct arbitrary arrests, conduct closed-door
trials, and censor the press.
The running battles with reformists undoubtedly give Iran's hard-liners plenty
of reasons to wish the word "republic" wasn't enshrined in the country's name.
And that wish appears to be a mobilizing idea for many top officials in the
Sanctioned By God
The best known is President Mahmud Ahmadinejad himself, whom reformists charge
with winning a second term by fraud.
Ahmadinejad is a disciple of an ultra-conservative
cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who believes that an Islamic state
does not need to have any democratic aspects because its government is directly
sanctioned by God. Such a state ideally would have no elections at all, because
its rulers would be appointed by clerical experts divinely inspired to make the
Mesbah-Yazdi is politically engaged, has clear goals, and sees Ahmadinejad's
hard-line government as the means to an end.
Two weeks before the elections, Mesbah-Yazdi issued a fatwah legitimizing any
means necessary to keep Ahmadinejad in power. That was a religious green light
for the thousands of people Ahmadinejad appointed to power in his first term --
including those in the Interior Ministry tasked with conducting the election --
to help Ahmadinejad if they had a mind to.
When Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the election the day after the vote,
he immediately went to see Mesbah-Yazdi.
A videotape distributed by the cleric's supporters records the meeting.
Ahmadinejad speaks with Mesbah-Yazdi in humble and religious terms of having
reached a mutual goal.
"I would like to thank you, as an ordinary Iranian who is benefitting from this
wave of righteousness which has swept the land," Ahmadinejad says. "I would like
to thank you for your guidance in these matters and for your management of them.
Also, I want to thank your friends the clerics who are working for this grand
The language is as obscure as language can be when the speakers already know all
the reference points. So, it is impossible for outsiders to say precisely what
"matters" Mesbah-Yazdi has managed or how. But the mood -- as Mesbah-Yazdi
punctuates Ahmadinejad's remarks only with an occasional "Inshallah" ("If it
pleases God") -- is celebratory.
Incompatible With Democracy
Born in 1934, Mesbah-Yazdi is an accomplished scholar who became an ayatollah
while still in his 20s. He runs three powerful educational institutions in Qom,
all spun off from the Haqqani seminary, which teaches that Islam is incompatible
In his public speeches, Mesbah-Yazdi has expressed his unhappiness with how the
Islamic republic has changed since Khomeini's death in 1989.
"After the death of [Khomeini], there has been some disrespect shown to Islamic
values, Islamic laws, and revolutionary values. There are not a few people who
have wept at night at the sight of the rich harvest of the revolution wilting,"
he has said. "There has been deviance from our values, and we hope you can bring
those values back. Reestablish abolished laws. Highlight those values which have
Mesbah-Yazdi appears intent on offering more than verbal criticism. The Haqqani
seminary network combines ultra-conservative values with an emphasis on
technocratic skills, the kind needed to run a government both while awaiting the
Mahdi's return and afterward.
The Mahdi, the 12th descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is believed by Shi'a to
have gone into hiding as a child 1,300 years ago. Also called the "hidden imam,"
his return is awaited by the faithful as the moment when the world will be
delivered from disorder, injustice, and corruption.
Besides Ahmadinejad, there are already several other key leaders in the
government believed to be influenced by Mesbah-Yazdi.
The most prominent is Major General Mohammad-Ali
Jafari, who became the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards in 2006.
Another is Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hussein Mohseni Ezhei, and still another
is anticorruption chief Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, both of them
It is this coherent and increasingly powerful infrastructure that could be
brought into play to help steer the future course of the Islamic republic
farther toward Islamic values and farther away from republican ones.
Anoushirevan Ehteshami, a professor of international politics at Durham
University in England, says Ahmadinejad's government tried to make the electoral
process irrelevant by rigging the results of last month's presidential poll. But
he says the public reaction shows that the ultra-conservatives have yet to find
the final way to reach their goal.
"Definitely the government will have to find a better strategy in the future for
dealing with this issue of people's participation, because the regime cannot
accept the way people this time are expressing their demands and not giving up,
and not ignoring the fraud which took place in this presidential election,"
Immediately after the election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad
as president-elect and called the claimed landslide victory a "divine miracle."
That enabled the government to crush the opposition protests with overwhelming
But the fact that the government could not have done so without the ailing
Khamenei's support only underlines the importance of controlling the person who
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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