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Iran: Preparing For The Next Big Vote

By Bill Samii

It might seem early to think about the next election in Iran, since the presidential race, which ended in the upset victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, took place just six months ago. Moreover, the new president does not even have a complete cabinet yet, with the parliament rejecting his nominee for petroleum minister late last month. Nonetheless, political observers in Iran began discussing the next election -- for the Assembly of Experts, currently expected to take place in October 2006 -- as early as July.

Some of the discussion focuses on how the country's political struggles will play out in the race. It also reflects the fact that this body of 86 clerics -- which meets just twice a year -- has the constitutional power to appoint and dismiss the Supreme Leader, the most powerful individual in the state. Major points of contention are who will decide which candidates are eligible and whether or not the election will be postponed.

Schools Of Thought

There are two prominent schools of thought on what the Assembly of Experts might do next -- both of which center on the belief that there is currently an intense rivalry for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's position. One school of thought has it that Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who is the deputy chairman of the assembly, and other top clerics want to replace the current system of Vilayat-i Faqih (leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) with a looser system of Visayat-i Fuqaha, which they interpret as general supervision over national affairs by a council of clerics.

This speculation, however, is based on unproven and questionable data -- the supposed rivalry between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khamenei. If such a rivalry really existed, then Khamenei would not have expanded the Expediency Council's powers in September to oversee other branches of government. The two men may disagree on some issues -- this is inevitable when two people have worked closely on controversial issues for roughly 40 years -- but there is very little substantive evidence that they are competitors. If anything, the two men depend on each other, and the current Islamic republic is a reflection of their joint efforts.

The second school of thought has it that ultra-conservatives want Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi to be the next supreme leader. Mesbah-Yazdi is the hard-line cleric that Ahmadinejad follows, and a number of Mesbah-Yazdi's former students at the Haqqani seminary currently hold cabinet positions.

Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi allegedly back a messianic interpretation of Islam, in which they hope that the 12th imam, known also as the Mahdi and who is in occultation, will return and restore justice to the world. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ahmadinejad told a 16 November national conference of Friday prayer leaders that "our mission is paving the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi."

The replacement of state officials by Ahmadinejad appointees, furthermore, has led to claims that the Hojjatieh Society, which was banished in 1983, is enjoying a revival. This society espouses similar views on the return of the Hidden Imam, and this would not be the first time that there are claims of a Hojjatieh comeback.

According to this school of thought, the new members of the assembly would engineer Mesbah-Yazdi's ascent to the leadership. The major flaw with this theory is that the Guardians Council's clerics, who are appointed by the supreme leader, are unlikely to allow the candidacy of individuals who will excessively upset the status quo.

Previous Assembly Elections

The last Assembly of Experts election took place in October 1998. Public participation that year was around 46 percent; it was approximately 37 percent in 1990, and approximately 77 percent in 1982.

Coming on the heels of reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's 1997 presidential victory, there was speculation that similarly inclined individuals would do well in the 1998 race. There were even calls for the participation of non-clerics, and nine women tried to run. But the Guardians Council, which determines candidates' eligibility and supervises elections, changed the rules.

In the past, would-be candidates had to demonstrate ijtihad, the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. But in 1998 all potential candidates had to demonstrate the proper political inclination as well. The council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants and none of the women. The council allowed a number of incumbent Assembly of Experts members to run again even though they failed to pass the ijtihad examination. The council argued that these people could do so because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had approved their credentials previously.

Revising Candidacy Standards

When the Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting in September, a handful of members reportedly submitted a motion to change the qualifications for membership. They supposedly wanted even more stringent academic qualifications, going from "relative ijtihad" to "absolute ijtihad," the hard-line "Siyasat-i Ruz" newspaper reported on 10 September. The former qualification permits one to interpret Islamic law, according to the daily, while the latter qualifies one to issue religious decrees (fatwa). The individuals who submitted this motion, furthermore, reportedly wanted the job of vetting candidates taken from the Guardians Council and given to seminarians. They argued that because some council members also compete for the assembly, the normal vetting procedure represents a conflict of interest.

Members of the assembly acknowledged in interviews that they had discussed the possibility of reassigning vetting responsibilities, the pro-reform "Sharq" daily reported on 12 September, citing Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The matter was referred to a committee that will make the final decision. Some assembly members also advocated the presence of non-clerics -- including women and military personnel -- in the assembly.

Another person calling for a change in the qualifications for assembly members was Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, the former speaker of parliament. He said there is an effort to limit the choice of candidates for the assembly, according to the pro-reform "Etemad" newspaper on 23 October, adding that this would reduce public participation in the election. Karrubi recommended letting the assembly's presidium have the final say on disqualified candidates. He added that the religious sources of emulation and prominent theologians -- "who have independent views and opinions and at the same time are affectionate toward the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini]" -- should be authorized to vet candidates' qualifications.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, secretary-general of the Solidarity Party, also said non-clerics should be allowed to run for assembly seats, noandish.com reported on 25 November. Asgharzadeh, whose candidacy was rejected in 1998, said these are important elections and the reformists should take a stand.

Delay The Election?

At least one member of the Guardians Council has called for delaying the next Assembly of Experts election to coincide with the 2008 parliamentary elections, the reformist "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 23 July. "Sharq" reported on 27 November that calls for a postponement continue.

However, a delay seems unlikely at this point. The Iranian regime takes great pride in holding elections on a regular basis, and Tehran cites this practice as a sign of its democratic nature. The regime also holds up public participation in elections as a sign of popular support for the ruling system.

Copyright (c) 2005. 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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