How Could Iran's Hard-Liners Choose The Next Supreme Leader?
By Mazyar Mokti, Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
The Islamic Republic of Iran has only had two
supreme leaders in its 30-year history.
For the first 10 years, the Islamic Revolution's founder, Grand Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khamenei, was the supreme leader and was unquestionably accepted as
such by the ruling clerical establishment.
For the last 20 years, the supreme leader has been Ali Khamenei, a man who has
never enjoyed that unquestioned status.
Khamenei's problems stem from the fact that he was an unlikely choice from the
beginning. He did not have the religious preeminence that underpinned Khomeini's
central concept for an Islamic state: that it be led by the country's most
learned Islamic jurist.
And his announcement as successor came only after the Khomeini's death, making
him appear to be a last-minute choice.
Now, with Khamenei ailing, the succession question looms again. But there is no
charismatic revolutionary founder to tell the electoral body - the Assembly of
Experts - what to do, and the assembly itself is riven by factional divides.
How Much Of A Voice?
The greatest divide is over how much of a republic the Islamic republic should
be. Or, in other words: How much of a voice should the people have in a country
that officially is a constitutional theocracy?
The Jamkaran mosque near Qom
In Qom, the heart of the clerical establishment,
there is considerable sentiment that the theocracy should be subordinate to the
constitution and sovereignty of the people.
For this reason, some prominent clerics have defended the right of opposition
supporters to challenge the June 12 presidential results even though the supreme
leader endorsed Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president-elect the moment the Interior
Ministry announced the results.
One is Qom-based reformist cleric Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Ayazi.
"[A number of clerics] in Qom believe that the way the election was conducted
was not correct and healthy. Therefore, they called for an investigation by an
independent group," Ayazi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda recently.
"Many believed, because of the evidence, that there was massive manipulation in
the June 12 vote. Therefore, the statement by Ayatollah Taheri, who is one of
Isfahan's most prominent clerics, is also in the same line, and I think it was
natural for the clerics to defend people's rights," he said.
Ayatollah Taheri, the former prayer leader of Isfahan, is a long-time critic of
Khamenei and called the reelection of Ahmadinejad illegitimate and tyrannical.
The existence of such strong questioning of the
supreme leader's stance in immediately endorsing Ahmadinejad may seem ironic in
the heart of Iran's clerical establishment. But it is in line with the Shi'ite
clergy's historical reluctance to take part in politics, despite the Islamic
republic's theocratic structure.
Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
The divide in Qom over the delicate balance between theocracy and constitutional
rule makes the next choice of a supreme leader an extremely threatening one for
Iran's hard-liners now in power.
It means there is no guarantee the next elected supreme leader will be in the
same mold as Khamenei.
Potentially worse still for some hard-line leaders, there are strong personality
clashes that could work against their interests.
The current head of the Assembly of Experts is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who
lost a presidential bid against Ahmadinejad in 2005 and is believed to have
backed opposition candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in a bid to prevent a second
Ahmadinejad attempted in his 2005 campaign to tar Rafsanjani's family as
business profiteers. In the crisis over last month's election,
government-controlled security forces arrested several Rafsanjani family
members, including his daughter, in an apparent attempt to pressure Rafsanjani
to abandon Musavi.
Earlier this year, the ultra-conservative cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi
Mesbah-Yazdi -- who is closely associated with Ahmadinejad -- lost an attempt to
wrest the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts from Rafsanjani. He got less
than half as many votes as Rafsanjani.
All this makes Qom a difficult place for any hard-line bid to skew the selection
process. And it makes it plausible that hard-liners might look for alternate
avenues to Qom if they want to be sure their current dominance is not
compromised in the future.
One alternative is Tehran and enough of a creeping
coup over the next four years to put them clearly in a kingmaker's position.
Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi
The softest approach could be to use the dominance of the government and its
security branches to escalate the crackdown on reformists that began as a
reaction to moderate President Mohammad Khatami and has continued with greater
and lesser periods of intensity to this day.
This would be to weaken opponents in the clerical establishment further to
assure that the Assembly of Experts elects a new supreme leader to order.
The most radical approach could be to try to gain the loyalty of the
Revolutionary Guards. It is upon the Guards, the political wing of the country's
military, that the ultimate power and acceptance of a new supreme leader
There is no guarantee any of these scenarios would produce success. But,
ironically, the challenge in both - and the many options between - has been made
easier by Khamenei's own slow but steady shift of the regime's power base from
Qom to Tehran.
The reasons for the shift return to Khamenei's own ambiguous standing in the
clerical establishment. He is supreme leader, but he is widely regarded as
flawed for the job. After Khamenei's appointment, his supporters gave him a
whirlwind promotion to ayatollah but that only increased the bitterness over his
lack of religious credentials.
During his time in office, Khamenei has waged war on many rival ayatollahs,
including using the government to stop them from receiving financial
contributions from those members of the public who follow them as religious
models, or "marjas." Today, Khamenei rarely visits Qom, underlining the strained
Instead, the supreme leader has endorsed the
hard-line camp in Tehran as it routs reformists - read republicans - both in the
streets and the establishment.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The supreme leader's hope appears to be to shore up his own power by masterfully
playing Iran's political factions against one another as he nominally remains
above the fray.
But doing so, he has allowed the hard-liners to grow so powerful they are now
increasingly in a position to think of shaping the state's future themselves.
With him. With a successor they choose. Or possibly even without a supreme
What would be the consequences of the hard-liners' success?
It is impossible to foresee the full costs now. But with certainty they would
include a more closed and insular Iran with a yet more authoritarian government.
This government - both out of conviction and to create a siege mentality at home
-- would be yet more confrontational with the West than its precursor is today.
And there would be no way the people of Iran could vote it out of office.
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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