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Iran: Voters Electing Assembly Of Experts Lack Choice

Prague, 22 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian voters go to the polls tomorrow to elect members of the country's Assembly of Experts.

The Assembly is an 83 member supra-governmental body which has the power to appoint and dismiss the country's supreme religious and political leader, known as the Rahbar or Vali-yi Faqih. The current Rahbar is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The eligibility of candidates is determined by the Council of Guardians. In the past, candidates had to demonstrate the highest degree of Islamic learning, with the stated purpose of ensuring a correct interpretation of the Koran. The head of the Research Center of the Assembly of Experts Secretariat recently told Tehran Times that this year, they must also demonstrate the proper political inclination.

A number of current Assembly members failed a formal religious examination, but their candidacies were permitted anyway. This was done on the basis that they had earlier been selected by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Initially, it was announced that the election would see the first female and non-clerical candidates. President Mohammad Khatami was elected last year partly due to his earning most of the women's vote. And the Executives of Construction party, which was behind Khatami's election, is mainly non-clerical and consists of many technocrats.

However, the Council of Guardians quickly dispelled hopes that tomorrow's election would provide voters with much of a choice. It accepted only 167 of the 396 applicants for candidacy. Nine women signed up for the election, but the Guardians Council rejected eight of them. The ninth woman withdrew her candidacy. All candidates from the pro-Khatami Executives of Construction were rejected. One of them was Vice-President for Development and Social Affairs (and former Interior Minister) Abdullah Nouri. Indeed, all candidates with pro-Khatami sympathies were rejected.

Subsequently, the Executives of Construction issued a statement regretting rejection of their candidates and hoping for reconsideration.

Even some religious figures were blocked from competing in the election. The Kumayl Association of Qum issued a statement complaining that the Council of Guardians "blocked the entrance of a large number of university and seminary teachers." Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Secretary of the Council of Guardians, refused to explain the process of evaluation and selection of candidates. He said the Council is "only responsible to the authority that appointed and installed" it, namely the conservative-dominated judiciary and parliament.

The Office for Strengthening Unity, a loose grouping of pro-Khatami Islamist associations comprised mainly of student groups, has reacted vigorously to the rejection of its three candidates. It staged a demonstration earlier this month outside the gates of Tehran University. The rally featured Hadi Khamenei, the brother of the current Rahbar and one of the disqualified candidates. Khamenei asked: "Is it accidental that all the (reformist) candidates have been rejected?" He called for "more political freedom." The rally led to a violent clash between the students and the Ansar-i Hizbullah, a group which generally advocates conservative causes. Police had to intervene.

On Sunday, student groups held another rally. Secretary General of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates Heshmatollah Tabarzadi criticized the rejection of so many candidates. He said that it had "created conditions in which there is no real competition." Counter-demonstrators were present, but the presence of police in riot gear prevented any disruptions.

President Khatami, in a radio address on Saturday, also expressed disappointment. He complained that the electoral authorities did not create "the climate and the conditions which would have attracted eligible individuals to enter the scene." He also observed that the Council could have let more candidates stand for office, if it had been more tolerant. "One could criticize here," he said.

Despite this, Khatami urged people to vote. He said that the candidates "are all honorable and noble." He said people should vote because voting "is the implementation of the people's most important right of sovereignty" and added "participating in the arena of elections for the Assembly of Experts is one such instance."

For his part, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Meshkini-Qumi, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, said that "extensive" public participation in the election will show the world that there is popular support for the leadership and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Implied in his statement is the notion that a low turnout could be regarded as a blow for the current theocratic system. The efforts of the religious leadership to encourage people's participation may indicate their awareness of public dissatisfaction and its potential consequences.

Roughly 25 Shia religious scholars and leaders in the holy city of Qum insisted that people vote in the election. Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel Movahedi-Lankarani called participation "a religious obligation". The same day, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi said "any voice of discord at this time is a sin."

The banning of so many candidates by the Council of Guardians is not a good sign. Nor is the lack of transparency in the selection process. But the encouragement given by President Khatami and other leaders for voters to turn out is promising. Their statements show that Iranian elites recognize the importance of legal institutions and public participation in the political process.

So tomorrow's voting is more than just an election for the members of a body charged with selecting a country's supreme leader on the basis of obscure religious standards and qualifications. It is an indicator of Iran's gradual political development.

(William Samii is a member of RFE/RL's Communications Division.)