Monday, December 18, 2006

A shark and a crocodile walk into a polling station in Tehran

Asia Times Online:
With votes still being hand-counted, there's every indication Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's moderate faction has scored a stunning victory over the extreme right in the crucial election for the 86-member Council of Experts, according to Iranian state TV.

"Hashemi" - as he is known in Tehran - as well as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi - the gray eminence and spiritual leader of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad - will be among the 16 clerics representing Tehran in the Council of Experts.

The Council of Experts (86 clerics only; no women allowed) is key because it's the only institution in the Islamic Republic capable of holding the supreme leader accountable and even removing him from office. It is the system's Holy Grail. The supreme leader - not the president - is where the buck stops in Iran.

Once again, this election has been a case of the extreme right against the moderate/pragmatists. Or the recluse Yazdi - aka "the crocodile" (in Farsi) - against the eternal insider, relative "friend of the West", former president (1989-97), opportunist and king of the dodgy deal, Rafsanjani.

Yazdi is the dean of the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute in Qom, a hardcore hawza (theological school) that has prepared and configured the world view of key members of the Ahmadinejad presidency. It's impossible to interview Yazdi - officially because of "government rules", unofficially of his own volition.

Rafsanjani, aka "the shark", remains the chairman of the Expediency Council and virtually the regime's No 2, behind Supreme Leader Ali al-Khamenei and ahead of Ahmadinejad. Iranian pop culture, with a tinge of Discovery Channel, delighted in describing this as the battle between the crocodile and the shark.

It was heavily symbolic that moderate Rafsanjani and another former president, the progressive, sartorially impeccable Mohammad "dialogue of civilizations" Khatami, voted together in the Jamaran mosque, where the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, used to deliver his speeches. Iranian reformist papers did not fail to publish the emblematic photo sealing the alliance on their front pages this past Saturday. Rafsanjani's victory was sweeter because he had lost to Ahmadinejad in the second round of the 2005 presidential elections.

There have been rumors in Tehran for months that Yazdi and his followers were on a power grab. They had won city and village council elections, then parliamentary elections, and the presidency (with Ahmadinejad), and were ready to conquer the Council of Experts and thus be in position to choose the next supreme leader. There have been unconfirmed reports that Khamenei may be seriously ill.

Saudi Wahhabis may complain there are "no free elections in Iran" (as if there were any elections in Saudi). Anyway, popular participation in these, one may say, "relatively free" elections was a healthy 60%.


Yazdi and his followers have always stressed they want to implement "real Islam". They view the Rafsanjani camp as a bunch of filthy rich, morally and legally corrupt decadents, totally oblivious to the concerns of "ordinary people", whose self-styled key symbol happens to be Ahmadinejad.

Yazdi is also the spiritual mentor of the Hojjatieh, a sort of ultra-fundamentalist sect whose literal interpretation of Shi'ite tradition holds that chaos in mankind is a necessary precondition for the imminent arrival of the Mahdi - the 12th hidden (since AD 941) Shi'ite imam who will come to save the world from injustice and widespread corruption. Ahmadinejad may not be a Hojjatieh himself, but he understands where they are coming from.

Yazdi's "real Islam" has nothing to do with Western democracy. He wants a kelafat - a caliphate. Ayatollahs like Yazdi are simply not concerned with worldly matters, foreign policy, geopolitical games or Iran's nuclear program; the only thing that matters is work for the arrival of the Mahdi. Yazdi is on record as saying that he could convert all of America to Shi'ism. But some in Tehran accuse him of claiming a direct link to the Mahdi, which in the Shi'ite tradition would qualify him as a false prophet.

Even facing a relative defeat at the polls, the Ahmadinejad faction - known as Isaargaraan ("the Self-Sacrificers") - maintains a huge, countrywide popular base in the military-security establishment, in the tens of millions, ranging from the Pasdaran - the Revolutionary Guard - to the Bassijis, the hardcore paramilitary, also known as "the army of 20 million", and expanding to the pious, apolitical, downtrodden masses, mostly rural but also urban (in sprawling south Tehran, for instance). But the defeat at the Council of Experts signals their efforts for an all-out power grab have certainly been thwarted.

It's important to remember that Ahmadinejad, more than a politician, is fundamentally a believer in the Mahdi. Ahmadinejad even has his own roadmap for the return of the Mahdi; he drew it himself. According to Shi'ite tradition, the Mahdi will rise in Mecca - not in Qom - where he will preach to his close followers (Jesus Christ puts on a guest appearance), draw up the armies of Islam and finally settle down in Kufa, Iraq.

The only crucial policy the Council of Experts has implemented since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 has been to appoint Khamenei as Khomeini's successor and new supreme leader, in 1989. It was in fact a white coup - because according to the constitution at the time the supreme leader had to be a marja (source of imitation and top religious leader). Khamenei was not up to standards. Khomeini died while the constitution was being revised; so Khamenei was in fact appointed by a law ratified only after he was already installed as supreme leader.

Yazdi has been trying a different strategy - to take over the Council of Experts from the inside and then overwhelm Khamenei. It's fair to argue that Khamenei has played a very deft hand. He firmly supported Yazdi before the 2005 presidential election, but lately has rallied his followers - and the full machinery of the system - to keep Yazdi and his protege, Ahmadinejad, under control.

"Hashemi" may have been a winner - but most of all it's the supreme leader who seems to be as much in control as he ever was. Khamenei has been politicizing the religious system non-stop, to the point of the Islamic Republic nowadays being neither a democracy nor a theocracy: rather, it's a clerical autocracy.

Neo-conservatives and the Washington establishment should not jump to hasty conclusions. There won't be regime change in Tehran any time soon. This year there has been a serious crackdown on the reformist press, the Internet, personal weblogs, satellite dishes and academia - where more than 50 reformist professors have been targeted.

What is happening now is the moderate/pragmatists reaching a more solid position allied with the reformists - with the extreme right held in check by a supreme leader more supreme than ever. The crocodile may have been rocked. But the Islamic Republic's fierce internal power play is far from over.


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