The race could have serious long-term implications -- particularly for would-be reformers.
The Assembly of Experts is a powerful institution whose 86 clerics' supervisory role includes the power to remove Iran's supreme leader from office. The fact that its members are popularly elected every eight years highlights the significance of the decision that faces voters in the December 15 ballot.
One of the most controversial aspects of this election is the competition for the assembly's leadership.
Ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, already a deputy speaker of the assembly, is largely backed by reformists, centrists, and mainstream conservatives. Leading figures in a conservative clergymen's association, the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), visited Hashemi-Rafsanjani in mid-September to encourage his candidacy. One of those clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, advised Hashemi-Rafsanjani that he is "still one of the principal mainstays of the system and leadership," the Aref website reported on September 19. He said such status carries a responsibility to "stand and serve the system at sensitive junctures."
Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a seasoned politician who served as president for two terms in 1989-97, was a legislator, and currently heads the Expediency Council. He reportedly told the clergymen's group that his participation is unnecessary and would make no real difference. He said he was already being criticized, and he pointed to his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2005, which included personal attacks against him and his family. Similar attacks -- many of them centered on allegations of financial corruption -- have continued against Hashemi-Rafsanjani's associates. They smack of an effort to weaken the informal network through which he wields his considerable influence.
...And The 'Crocodile'
The man whom many view as Hashemi-Rafsanjani's likely rival is Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Mesbah-Yazdi is punningly referred to by detractors as "Ayatollah Crocodile" ("Temsah") due to his hard-line views. He is current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide and a founder of the conservative Haqqani seminary, with numerous associates in the executive branch of government.
Two Haqqani alumni serve in the current cabinet -- Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi. Mesbah-Yazdi now heads the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, and several of its associates now work in the executive branch, including government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham, First Vice President Parviz Davudi, and presidential adviser for clerical affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Nasser Saqa-yi Biria.
A conservative weekly associated with Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan" from Qom, has published a number of attacks on Hashemi-Rafsanjani. A lengthy piece on August 23 purports to be seminarians' response to a letter from Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The ex-president is portrayed as questioning Iran's theocratic system and employing "distorted and truncated quotes" from the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to substantiate his views. The article goes on to imply that Hashemi-Rafsanjani has comforted Iran's enemies by voicing support for a Leadership Council to replace the current figure of the supreme leader.
The same article suggests that allies of Britain sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have extended Hashemi-Rafsanjani's term as president beyond 1997. It also condemns his failure to call for the death of a scholar who criticized the clergy in 2003 and his support for women's rights. The article goes on to attack the think tank associated with the Expediency Council, the Strategic Research Center, which includes perceived reformers on its staff like former President Khatami and former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani.
Occasional hints of reconciliation between the hard-line Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani generally prove not to be true. The two reportedly bumped into each other at an early September meeting of the Assembly of Experts and had what one observer described as a "very friendly and warm encounter," "Sharq" reported on September 4. The hard-liner was quoted as saying he has "no blood feud with anyone" and stressing his long friendship with Hashemi-Rafsanjani. But he reportedly rushed to add that he and Hashemi-Rafsanjani "differ...on certain issues" and that their "religious responsibility" dictates that "friendship will play no role."
Pro-reform activists have reacted to fundamentalist attacks against their favorites in many ways -- including downplaying Mesbah-Yazdi's prerevolutionary activities against the shah. He also has been linked with a banned millennialist entity, the Hojjatieh Society.
A former interior minister and legislator better-known for his role in establishing the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980s, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, recently likened Mesbah-Yazdi's followers to the Hojjatieh Society -- calling them "a movement within an organized cult...[that seeks] control of the Assembly of Experts," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted him on August 26 as saying. Mohtashami-Pur warned that "a movement that thinks like the Hojjatieh always poses a danger to the people and the system."
The fundamentalists are attacking other prospective leaders in the Assembly of Experts, too. One of their apparent targets is a symbol of the reformist movement, former President Khatami (1997-2005). A reformist party leader, National Trust Party head Ebrahim Amini, accused Khatami's opponents of "trying by various means to create doubt in public opinion about the positions of the reformists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He accused those same elements of resorting to "character assassination."
A leading figure from the center of the political spectrum, senior Executives of Construction Party member Mohammad Hashemi, echoed that accusation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He said the bullying began after the 2000 parliamentary elections and has "gradually turned into an unethical tradition" through which fundamentalists stopped pressing solutions and started relying solely on political attacks on their opponents.
The most vicious recent attacks on Khatami have come from Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham and the head of the "Nosazi" website. In an open letter published in "Etemad-i Melli" on September 4, Rajabi suggested that a U.S. visa for Khatami's recent trip to the United States is his "reward for eight years of efforts from the Americans, and especially from .the Black House."
Rajabi attacked Khatami's "presence and parading in America's cities" and disparaged his views on "modern Islam" She accused Iran's most prominent proponent of reform of distorting religion -- calling Khatami's Islam "the Islam of a life of pleasure, the Islam of doing business, the Islam of aristocracy, the Islam of seeking comfort, the Islam of seeking welfare, and in a word: American Islam." She called it "a lame excuse for someone who is dressed as Shi'ite clergy?"
Criticized by reformists and by conservatives, and her brother, Mohammad Hassan Rajabi, according to "Kargozaran" on August 1, Rajabi lashed out again. She said Khatami's ascribing of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to Muslims "delivered a major blow against Islam." She suggested that recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that elicited widespread condemnation among Muslims were "a natural echo of Khatami's remarks," "Aftab" reported on September 17.
The role of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) could further cloud prospects for potential rivals to any but the most conservative candidates. The IRGC was accused of interfering in the 2003 municipal elections on behalf of fundamentalists. The Basij, a branch of the IRGC, was accused after the 2005 presidential election of having behaved like a political party.
Such allegations coincide with accusations of Guards Corps political activism that are either denied or refuted with references to Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution that tasks the IRGC with defending the revolution and its achievements.
Recent statements by Guards Corps leaders are consistent with a pattern favoring the hard-liners. The chief of the IRGC joint staff, General Yadollah Javani, told a meeting of corps commanders that there are major political movements involved in the upcoming elections that have different interpretations of Iran's theocratic system (vilayat-i faqih), "Hemayat" reported on September 10. He characterized opponents as believing that the popular vote legitimizes the system and that the theocracy's responsibility is satisfying the people. That movement is opposed by those who -- like revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and presumably, himself -- believe God legitimizes the vilayat-i faqih system. Javani went on to say that the reformists are intent on returning to power, and they are trying to create divisions among fundamentalists.
The supreme leader's representative in the IRGC counterintelligence department, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Salek, sounded a more ominous alarm. He warned that there is an effort afoot to undermine the vilayat-i faqih, "Kayhan" reported on September 17. He alleged that an unidentified five-member committee is trying to "infiltrate" individuals into the Assembly of Experts "in order to create deviations in that institution." He said their goal is to "bring about the disintegration and collapse of the Islamic political system."
Are The Reformers Ready?
Pro-reform parties are not standing by idly. They are trying to form a coalition to compete with the fundamentalists. "Aftab-i Yazd" on September 16 quoted Mohammad Salamati of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization as saying the reformist coalition has been finalized.
But there also are questions about a draft election law that many observers fear would extend the hard-liners' considerable ability to restrict candidates for elected office. A former interior minister, Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, noted that the group conducting the election -- the Interior Ministry -- is from the same political camp as the Guardians Council, which is supervising the election, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on August 14.
Musavi-Lari noted that the Guardians Council's power to vet candidates represents reformists' "main concern," since that body can decide "whether or not they will be allowed to remain on the scene."
The Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting on August 29-30. Little information emerges from those closed-door affairs -- highlighted by the fact that final statements are remarkably similar from year to year.
But as the current group prepares to give way to a new Assembly of Experts, it appears that a fundamentalist victory would cement the hold of President Ahmadinejad's allies over all elected branches of government. On the other hand, reformist gains would signal that a group that has been in disarray since 2003 has returned to the political fray -- and is not completely marginalized.