Having quickly consolidated its authority over Iran's political establishment, the country's neo-conservative movement, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is now intent on gaining a dominant position within the Assembly of Experts, the most influential religious institution in Tehran.
Assembly elections are slated to be held in the fall of 2006. The main responsibility of the body, which comprises 86 clergy members, is selection and oversight of Iran's supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the paramount figure in the country's opaque theocratic system. The supreme leader has life tenure. However, the assembly has the authority to remove him at any time.
At present, the Assembly of Experts, or Khobregan in Persian, is dominated by conservative-minded clerics. But since its formation following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the institution has followed a consensus-based approach on policy matters, in keeping with the desires of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who urged unanimity among the clergy. Factional fights within the assembly have been hidden from public view by the fact that assembly sessions are held behind closed doors.
The Iranian neo-conservative movement wants to make a radical departure from tradition, turning the assembly into another political instrument to pursue its political agenda. The neo-cons are already hard at work campaigning to secure a dominating majority in the next assembly, members of which are elected by popular vote to eight-year terms.
The neo-cons are pinning their hopes on Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a cleric from the holy city of Qom who first gained national prominence several years ago with fiery sermons denouncing the relaxation of social strictures during former president Mohammad Khatami's administration. Mesbah Yazdi enjoys close ties with Ahmadinejad. As the only top cleric to endorse Ahmadinejad for president during the run-up to the 2005 election, Mesbah Yazdi over the last year has enjoyed the benefits of executive favor, including political appointments for his supporters. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On May 22, Ahmadinejad signaled that the Assembly of Experts campaign was underway, calling on Iranians to use the election to send a message to the international community. "We have to offer an exemplary Islamic society to the world's monotheists and freedom-lovers by building a prosperous and independent country," Iranian news agencies quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. He was apparently referring mainly to the United States, which has exerted considerable pressure on Iran in recent months to scale back Tehran's nuclear research program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Not just reform-minded Iranians, but also centrists and even some conservatives are alarmed by the prospect of a Mesbah Yazdi-dominated Assembly of Experts. Mesbah Yazdi advocates a strict-constructionist approach to interpreting the Koran, and has urged a tightening of Iran's theocracy. In addition, he has called for the expurgation of non-Islamic influences from Iran by any means necessary. Underscoring Mesbah Yazdi's extreme views, a newspaper controlled by the cleric, Parto Sokhan, has run advertisements seeking suicide bombers.
Some political analysts in Tehran have expressed concern that Mesbah Yazdi's ultimate aim is to use the Assembly of Experts to oust Ayatollah Khamenei and install himself as supreme leader. Already, a few observers have noted that neo-conservatives have taken steps to reduce the authority of the pragmatist faction, which is led by Ayatollah Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a vice president of the Assembly of Experts. Mesbah Yazdi and other neo-conservatives consider Rafsanjani's pragmatists to be the main obstacle in the way of realizing their Assembly of Experts election ambitions. In the current Assembly of Experts, the pragmatists enjoy rough parity with Mesbah Yazdi's loyalists, with each faction having between 10-12 members. There are also eight reformists in the current assembly. The bulk of the body's membership is either mainstream conservative, or independent with conservative inclinations.
Rafsanjani is trying to foil the neo-con strategy by forging a united front with reformists and moderate conservatives. According to observers in Tehran, Rafsanjani is reportedly negotiating with other faction representatives within the Assembly of Experts to assume the chairmanship of the body, in the event that the united-front wins the election. The incumbent chairman, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, is reportedly seriously ill and is expected to retire.
The Guardian Council, a religious body that supervises elections and vets candidates, could prove a wild card in the assembly vote. The conservative-dominated council may give Mesbah Yazdi a boost by disqualifying reformist candidates. In 2004, the Guardian Council banned a large number of reformists from campaigning in parliamentary elections, enabling neo-conservatives to secure control of the legislature. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Another important factor as the behind-the-scenes jockeying intensifies is the supreme leader's preferences. Ayatollah Khamenei so far has seemed to steer a middle course, keeping his options open.
The continuation of Iran's standoff with the international community on the nuclear issue is likely to play into Mesbah Yazdi's hands, many political analysts believe. The hard-line cleric has attracted increasing public support by appealing to nationalist pride, accusing the United States and its allies of conspiring to promote the overthrow of the Islamic republic.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.