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Iran: Senior Cleric's Death Sparks Search For New Assembly Chairman

By Vahid Sepehri

August 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The death on July 30 of the conservative chairman, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, of Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts obliges its members to select a new chamber leader.

Speculation is rife over whether that person will be a moderate, a pragmatist, or a conservative in religion and politics -- with considerable potential to influence the power balance and relative strength of various coteries in the assembly.

But the most significant power of the Assembly of Experts arguably lies in its role naming and overseeing Iran's supreme leader. The health of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been the object of much speculation despite official assurances.

An unnamed member was quoted by Fars News Agency on July 30 as saying that the Assembly of Experts will have "no problem" functioning until a successor to the late Ayatollah Ali Meshkini is selected.

Ex-President's Role

The chairman's duties will be carried out by First Deputy Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- assisted by the presidium -- until a new chairman is chosen at a session tentatively expected after August 23.

One website, rooz.com, has quoted a prominent reformist journalist, Ahmad Zeidabadi, as saying that Hashemi-Rafsanjani might be a natural choice for the chairmanship. Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a former president who currently heads the Expediency Council, which arbitrates in legislative and related matters. But, the journalist added, right-wing radicals and archconservatives are likely to oppose such a choice.

Rooz.com on July 31 suggested that those factions appear to prefer another prominent assembly member, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Mesbah-Yazdi is closely associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, while Hashemi-Rafsanjani has increasingly come to represent the forces of political moderation -- criticizing government policy and facing verbal onslaughts from the extreme right wing. The possible choice of one of those two as the next assembly chairman could well influence the future votes and direction of the Assembly of Experts. It would almost certainly affect its most important vote -- for the next supreme leader, Iran's ranking state official -- with ample prerogatives of appointment, dismissal, and even interference in the work of state bodies.

Looming Squabbles?

Radio Farda speculated on July 29 that an increasing bipolarity between centrists or moderates and radicals might emerge in the assembly -- normally a secretive and seemingly consensual body.

Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani do not represent a simple choice between religious or political intransigence, on one hand, and pragmatism on the other. Radio Farda noted they have also indicated differing visions of the supreme leader's office (vilayat-i faqih). The hard-liners view the supreme leadership as a "caesaropapist" institution, with the supreme jurisprudent ruling as a presumably pious and enlightened -- if effectively unchallenged -- despot.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani has apparently favored the supreme leader's greater integration into other institutions in the Islamic republic. The supreme leader's office would in that case have ample and decisive powers, but nonetheless be more accountable and consultative.

Institutional Questions

While reformists and pragmatists regard the supreme leader as a key official bound to constitutional prerogatives, some conservatives have cited him as akin to a deputy or vice regent of celestial powers on Earth. One inclined to such views, at least on the basis of past statements, is the former judiciary chief and present second deputy head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi. Yazdi spoke in the 1990s of the "discovery" of the supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts -- a term that is reminiscent of the process of a Tibetan lama. In this view, the people's vote for the leader -- through assembly members -- is a formality and effectively an act of allegiance to the government favored by God. Radio Farda noted on July 29 that Supreme Leader Khamenei's inclinations might also prove decisive in deliberations over the next assembly president.

The reformist daily "Etemad" noted on July 31 that the "Mesbah and [Hashemi-]Rafsanjani" currents are now facing each other in the assembly, though each might prefer to field one of its "clerical generals" in the assembly as candidates for the chairmanship. It cited as two possible contestants the ayatollahs Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, who might enjoy Hashemi-Rafsanjani's backing, and Ahmad Khatami, a conservative and prominent Tehran preacher with presumed backing on the right. "Etemad" counted another prominent conservative assembly member, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, as part of the "Mesbah party," with reportedly strained relations with Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The daily did not say whether Jannati might be a possible candidate. Another reformist daily, "Etemad-i Melli," assessed the candidacies of Ayatollahs Yazdi and Hashemi-Shahrudi as possible, though not probable.

The central government declared today a day of official mourning in Iran for Chairman Ayatollah Meshkini. Meanwhile, the Qom Province, where Iran's seminaries are based, are in mourning for two days -- today and August 2 -- according to ISNA on July 31. Many of Iran's newspapers carried Meshkini biographies on July 31 highlighting his religious studies and political activities alongside the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini under the monarchy.

Rooz.com on July 31 attributed a particularly memorable remark to Meshkini. Expressing satisfaction at the election of a conservative majority in the present parliament, Meshkini thanked the absent 12th Shi'a Imam -- a messianic figure for Iranian Shi'a -- for signing the "list of the names and addresses" of its members, which the angels had taken to him.

Copyright (c) 2007. 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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