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Iran: Resurgence Of Religio-Political Society Raises Concerns

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (left) with other members of the Council of Experts in September 2001 (AFP) The recent announcement by a former Iranian vice president of the arrest of members of a banned and clandestine religio-political group probably caught many observers by surprise. The secretive Hojjatieh Society is unlikely to have many remaining members. And allegations in the past five years of Hojjatieh activism have generally appeared in connection with political disputes or to explain sectarian strife. But statements by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly is inclined toward Shi'ite millennialism, have contributed to speculation that the Hojjatieh Society is making a comeback. Could that include a run for Iran's supreme leadership?

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Given the opaque nature of Iranian government, the public might never know just how pervasive the Hojjatieh Society's activities really are.

But Former Vice President Abtahi was quoted by the hard-line daily "Kayhan" on July 5 as saying that several Hojjatieh Society members were arrested recently. It is difficult to test the veracity of the claim by Abtahi, who served as vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs under ex-President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. But it renews fears that the secretive Hojjatieh could wield considerable power in the Iranian establishment.

Historical Context

The Hojjatieh group was formed by a Mashhad-based cleric in the early 1950s to counter the activities of Bahai missionaries, who claimed that the long-awaited Twelfth Imam of Shi'ite Islam had already returned and been superseded by the Bahai faith. That cleric, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi, recruited volunteers who could debate the Bahais and who formed the original Hojjatieh Society (formally known as the Anjoman-i Khayrieyeh-yi Hojjatieh Mahdavieh). But reference sources say the society expanded its reach and its membership in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hojjatieh members initially opposed the ideas of Islamic government and rule of the supreme jurisconsult (Vilayat-i Faqih) espoused by the father of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Instead, they favored collective leadership of the religious community and opposed religious involvement in political affairs.

But founder Halabi feared a communist takeover after the 1978-79 Islamic revolution. So he urged his followers to abandon their ideas about collective religious leadership and secular government in Iran's watershed referendum in December 1979.
By 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini was attacking the Hojjatieh Society and demanding that they "get rid of factionalism and join the wave that is carrying the nation forward" or be "broken." The Hojjatieh Society announced its official dissolution the same day.

That move reportedly paid off in the form of administrative appointments in the postrevolutionary government for members, whose religious credentials have been described as "impeccable" by author Baqer Moin in his 1999 book, "Khomeini: Life Of The Ayatollah."

Khomeini and others appear to have grown concerned over Hojjatieh members' secrecy, however, and their success. By 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini was attacking the Hojjatieh Society and demanding that they "get rid of factionalism and join the wave that is carrying the nation forward" or be "broken." The Hojjatieh Society announced its official dissolution the same day, according to author Moin.

Warnings Of Extremism

Fast-forward more than two decades to a speech just weeks after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's August 2005 inauguration. Outgoing President Khatami is warning of the emergence of an extremist movement that is raising fears of corruption and claiming that universities' curricula are insufficiently Islamic. Khatami adds that such groups aid foreigners who do not want to see Islamic states succeed, according to Fars News Agency on August 19.

Reformist commentators quickly pick up on the same theme. A member of the left-wing Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, Hashem Hedayati, says Khatami issued his warning because extremists are entering the government, "Etemad" reports on August 21. Hedayati adds that the phenomenon represents a strategic shift by the Hojjatieh Society, which previously avoided involvement in political affairs.

Less than a month later, a former interior minister and parliamentarian who is a prominent member of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), also warns of a Hojjatieh revival. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur says the society opposed involvement with politics before the revolution but subsequently changed tack and displayed a more violent tendency, "Etemad" reports on September 18. Mohtashami-Pur compares the Hojjatieh Society with Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, and accuses it of "speaking through various podiums, brandishing a truncheon on a heretic witch-hunt, [and] accusing [Iranian] youth" of wrongdoing.

Warnings Of 'Pseudo-Clerics'

Late last year, former Vice President Abtahi noted that many grassroots religious groups had backed Ahmadinejad's presidential run. What stood out most, he said, was that these groups praised the Twelfth Imam, rather than speaking in political terms, the "Financial Times" reported on November 9. Abtahi speculated that Ahmadinejad has "more important goals than politics," warning that the new head of state "speaks with the confidence of someone who has received God's word."

Ahmadinejad's references to the Twelfth Imam in a September speech at the United Nations brought his affinity for millennialist views to the world's attention. Ahmadinejad's later observation that he was surrounded by an aura during the speech, and that the spellbound audience in the General Assembly sat unblinking, also drew attention to his unorthodox views.

More concretely, there are suggestions that Ahmadinejad has earmarked millions of dollars in government funds for the Jamkaran Mosque on the outskirts of Qom, where some Shi'a believe the Hidden Imam will reappear. Finally, there has been a burgeoning of Iranian websites that focus on the Hidden Imam.

A reformist legislator, Imad Afruq, cautions to the reformist "Etemad-i Melli" daily on February 20 that many "pseudo-clerics" who promote mysticism are distorting Islam and misleading the faithful. Under these conditions, the lawmaker claimed, the Hojjatieh Society will find it easy to operate.

At the same time, a Supreme Court judge, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Sadeq Al-i Ishaq, is quoted by "Etemad" on February 20 as warning of the persistent danger of reactionaries. He says Ayatollah Khomeini regretted ever making use of the reactionary clerics, and accuses the Hojjatieh Society of hiding its true intentions so it can gain places in the government. The judge argues that society still exists and that clerics should take the danger seriously.

A Member As Supreme Leader?

There have been accusations that Ahmadinejad's religious mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is a member of the Hojjatieh Society, a claim that he rejected, according to "Hemayat" newspaper on April 30. The hard-line cleric prompted controversy when he claimed last year that the Twelfth Imam prayed for Ahmadinejad's election, according to "Mardom Salari" on July 21, 2005.

Now, Mesbah-Yazdi's name has surfaced in connection with the upcoming election of the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the Iranian supreme leader's performance and selects a successor. Mesbah-Yazdi has been mentioned by some as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an effort to preempt Mesbah-Yazdi's selection, opponents have criticized him on a variety of pretexts -- including his perceived lack of activism against the monarchy before Iran's Islamic revolution.

The outcome of this fall's Assembly of Experts election should help gauge the support that Ahmadinejad and his allies have for placing Mesbah-Yazdi atop Iran's theocratic system -- if that is indeed their objective. Given the lack of transparency in the Iranian political process, however, it will be extremely difficult to get an accurate reading of the Hojjatieh Society's influence.

The Structure Of Iran's Government

The Structure Of Iran's Government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed under a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were expanded and the prime minister's post was abolished.
Appointed -- not elected -- offices and bodies hold the real power in the government. The supreme leader, who serves as a chief of state would, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory board that is called the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints members of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council.
The Guardians Council -- some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by the parliament -- works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by the parliament. The Expediency Council is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between parliament and the Guardians Council over legislation.
The president, who is popularly elected for a four-year term, serves as the head of government. The legislative branch is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms...(more)


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran.