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Iran: Clerics Face A Presidential Dilemma

  • Bill Samii

Iran's clerics have two weeks to choose a favorite The Iranian constitution requires that the president be a "religious-political individual" (rejal-i mazhabi-siasi), but this does not mean the president must be a cleric. Indeed, only two clerics won approval as candidates in the presidential race. Nevertheless, the clerical community's endorsement is important in a theocratic state. Clerical leaders are professing neutrality, but their effort to ensure a conservative consensus is indicative of their biases.

Members of the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member clerical body that is tasked with supervising the supreme leader, said the body does not support a specific person and an individual does not have to be a cleric to be president. Tabriz representative Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, for example, said, "In Islam, the criteria for selecting a person is meritocracy and his familiarity with the constitution. Place and position are not important" ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 5 April 2005).

The two clerical candidates in the election, which is scheduled for 17 June, are Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi. In terms of the political spectrum, the former is center-right, while the latter is center-left.

But it is the one of the right-wing candidates, former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who seems the keenest for a clerical endorsement, having spent a whole day with the senior clerics in Qom in late-May. He told reporters later that some of his meetings were behind closed doors, but in general terms he received guidance on how to serve the country effectively ("Iran," 28 May 2005).

Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Qom Seminary Lecturers' Association, said in late May that his organization has not expressed support for a specific candidate. Anybody saying otherwise is only expressing a personal opinion, he added ("Etemad," 28 May 2005). Just a few days later, Khatami said, "I would guess that the final choice is unlikely to be a non-cleric, but the final decision has to be taken by the Qom Seminary Lecturers' Association as a whole" (Fars News Agency, 30 May 2005).

Five of the eight candidates in the parliamentary race -- Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Qalibaf, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani, and Mohsen Rezai -- are supported by different conservative constituencies. This includes the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, Islamic Coalition Party (Hizb-i Motalefeh-yi Islami), Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami), and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran). Their differences have as much to do with age and the belief that their moment has come as they do with ideology.

The big concern for the conservative clerical community is that having so many candidates undermines the image of unity. On election day, furthermore, there is the fear that no single candidate will secure enough votes for a clear cut victory, and in the subsequent second round the clerics' favorite could lose. Leading clerics, therefore, are demanding that the right-wing act with greater coordination. Indeed, Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, who is secretary-general of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, urged the conservative candidates to behave selflessly and settle on one candidate. His action was unexpected and showed the urgency of the situation, because he is seen as more of a "traditional guru" (murshid-i sunnati) rather than an activist, and in recent years he has tried to work behind the scenes ("Etemad," 21 April 2005).
The big concern for the conservative clerical community is that having so many candidates undermines the image of unity.


More than one month later, other senior clerics were expressing similar opinions. Grand Ayatollah Hussein Nuri-Hamedani called on the conservative candidates to "reach a general consensus in these sensitive conditions," and Grand Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili asked, "How much longer will this business of factional differences go on, while the people's general conditions are overlooked?" ("Aftab-i Yazd," 28 May 2005). Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi told the conservatives that they must achieve consensus in the short time remaining before the election ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 28 May 2005).

Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with Qom seminarians at Jamaran's Husseinieh No. 2 and told them that he will not withdraw from the race (Fars News Agency, 27 May 2005). Asked if he would do so if the conservatives reach a consensus on another candidate, Hashemi-Rafsanjani responded, "For the time being, no."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a member of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, and one would expect it to support his candidacy. Yet it does not seem very enthusiastic. An association spokesman said that it has postponed its decision for a week (ILNA, 27 May 2005). And Mahdavi-Kani's office was forced to deny a report in which he allegedly said, "I have no attachment to Hashemi-Rafsanjani, but, at the end of the day, he is a cleric and I support him on this basis" (Fars News Agency, 30 May 2005).

But if there is any semblance of clerical unity, even if that unity is a reluctant one, it is illusory. Some seminary lecturers reportedly have asked Hashemi-Rafsanjani to step out of the race ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 28 May 2005). They fear that he will continue policies that lead to corruption and a widening gap between the reach and poor.

Meanwhile, popular dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri predicts that public participation in the election will be low (Reuters, 20 May 2005). This is because the president does not have any real power, he said, unlike the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With a little more than two weeks remaining before the election, Iran's clerical community is not sure whom it will endorse. As Ali Larijani is the chosen candidate of the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, he is probably the first choice. But some clerics may feel an obligation to support Hashemi-Rafsanjani because of his long involvement in the revolution. Younger members of the clerical community may feel a greater affinity with Qalibaf or even Ahmadinejad. The clerics face a difficult choice -- they will not want to endorse the losing candidate, because this would highlight the distance between them and the public.
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