February 11, 2008


Iran's Clerical Old Guard Being Pushed Aside (Thomas Erdbrink, 2/11/08, Washington Post)

If the clerics have a chance at regaining the political prominence they enjoyed in the years following the 1979 revolution, analysts say, it will be under the leadership of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ayatollah and former close aide to Khomeini who lost the presidential election to Ahmadinejad in 2005.

During Rafsanjani's two terms in the 1990s, his faction controlled several important executive and economic institutions in Iran, among them the Oil Ministry. He helped bring cleric Mohammad Khatami to power as his successor in 1997.

Khatami's supporters, known here as reformists, included many onetime revolutionaries, such as former students who came to regret their 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which led to the severing of ties between Iran and the United States. Rafsanjani's political allies teamed with the reformists and together they began arguing that Islamic law is dynamic and adaptable. They also favored reestablishing relations with the United States through compromise and proposed minor democratic reforms. Later, political fights broke out between the two groups.

Although they held executive power, Khatami and his supporters were prevented from carrying out most of their plans by the judiciary and the Guardian Council, a 12-member body that answers to the supreme leader. Both were dominated by opponents of relations with the United States and of political or religious change.

Most of the candidates disqualified last month belong to Khatami's broad reformist coalition, which sought to compete with the newcomers in this year's parliamentary elections. The Guardian Council is considering appeals and will announce its decisions March 5.

Rafsanjani's supporters, whom the newcomers have accused of corruption, a lack of revolutionary zeal and even spying, decided not to stand in the upcoming elections, although they have not given an explanation.

"We believe we should open the atmosphere in the country, give more freedom and practice detente in the international arena. The newcomers are dogmatic and don't believe in the wishes of the people," said Montajabnia, the cleric, who is a member of the National Trust Party and part of the reformist coalition. "This is a power struggle for the political direction of this country."

The struggle began almost four years ago with the surprise election to parliament of a majority representing the newcomers, and it continued with Ahmadinejad's presidential victory and the subsequent replacement of tens of thousands of experienced government managers.

The newcomers, some of whom had spent years in secondary positions in the Iranian system but had no prominent role in the revolution, have taken over important positions traditionally held by clerics. Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former student of physics and deputy minister of education, became the first non-cleric to head parliament following the 2004 election.

The top negotiator on nuclear issues, cleric Hassan Rowhani, was replaced by Ali Larijani, a former head of Iranian state television. Larijani was replaced in October by Saeed Jalili, another non-cleric and a close ally of Ahmadinejad.

Among the newcomers are a few clerics, almost all of whom studied at a religious school in the holy city of Qom known for its strict interpretation of Islam.

Ahmadinejad's faction, which calls itself "principalist," consists of newcomers who say they want to act according to the principles of Islam and the revolution. Many members are former commanders in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a force created after 1979 to protect the revolution. Members of another, more technocratic group have similar ideals and backgrounds but are at odds with the government on how to implement those principles. Larijani, who is seeking election to parliament, is emerging as the head of that faction.

"After a purge, the remaining faction divides. The split in the newcomers group will finally result in two main new groups in Iranian politics," said Iraj Jamshidi, political editor at Etemaad newspaper. [...]

Still, Rafsanjani holds one last trump card. In September he was chosen as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, an elected council of 86 clerics that selects, supervises and can dismiss the supreme leader.

"We don't know what's happening in the assembly," Serjooie said. "But we can be sure the new generation is now trying to get as many other institutions as possible under their influence, to cement their newly attained power."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2008 3:56 PM

So, if I follow this correctly, Rafsanjani supporters are sitting out the parliamentary elections. The "reformists", many of whom were in power from 97-05, aren't going to be on the ballot (per the Guardians), the new wave of "reformists" has few clerics in their ranks (i.e., no connection to Khameini), and a fair number of the new wave are technocrats who will either follow or align with Ahmandinejad.

Sounds like SNAFU to me.

One thing is clear - nobody can change anything. It will be very interesting after Khameini dies, because the purists won't want Rafsanjani (too personally corrupt, too 1990s), the hard-liners won't want anyone "reformist", and the other gangs are going to be fighting to get the ring. If Khameini dies before the election next August, Mahmoud could be around for a long time. I'm sure he has the addresses of all on the Council of Experts, and his clerics (in Qum and elsewhere) are more likely to have the guns.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2008 6:28 AM

Khamenei will add them to the ballot again.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2008 11:13 AM

I doubt it - he doesn't want instability, and any reformer to 'left' of Rafsanjani (and Khatami) is going to have to be a force in order to survive under Ahmadinejad and the nutjobs. And 'forces' are inherently instable (and uncontrollable). Guys like Montazeri are either under house arrest, internal exile, or are dead.

There won't be real change in Iran until someone not on the ballot tells the truth, rallies the people, and gets to the top.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2008 5:26 PM