Teheran (AsiaNews) – Stratford Global Intelligence believes that the upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts could well be the most crucial ballot in the history of the Iranian Republic. The 86 mullahs sitting on the assembly have the power to choose – and in theory even to depose – the Supreme Guide of the Revolution, who is the real head of State. Although they only meet twice a year – usually in the religious centre of Qom but at times in Mashad too, another place of pilgrimage, or in Teheran – the Assembly has an influential say, directly or indirectly, in country’s strategic decisions, although it does not occupy itself with current affairs.
One factor that gives the upcoming election – structurally not very democratic – more weight is the mystery surrounding the current state of health of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, 67. Rumour has it that he has cancer. Another factor is that the current president of the Assembly, 80-year-old Ali Meshkini, seems inclined to step down.
Elected for eight years, the 86 members of the Assembly – which once elected cannot be subjected to any controls and hence is a sort of regency council – could pave the way for regime reform. The 144 candidates are picked from 495 who put themselves forward. As happens in the presidential election, their names were selected by the Guardians’ Council, composed of six theologians appointed by the Guide and by six jurists proposed by the courts and approved by Parliament. All non-clerics and women are eliminated, and “dubious” candidates must pass an exam on Islamic law to be admitted.
The 144 candidates represent just over two candidates per seat. Only Muslims can vote for them: Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians cannot vote or be elected.
Two factions oppose each other, both led by men of dubious reputation, who aspire to step into the shoes of Khamenei:
a) the “pragmatics” who are led by the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, recently named by Argentine judges for involvement in anti-Jewish attacks in their country, and indicted by the Swiss courts in the murder of Kazem Radjavi. Considered to be Iran’s richest man, he lost the last presidential ballot because of his renown as a profiteer and corrupter.
b) The “ultra-conservatives” who follow Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Held by some – but the claim seems excessive – to be the spiritual leader of President Ahmadinejad, Yazdi wants to make application of Islamic laws more rigid, he exalts the use of force and he would like, for example, the extermination of the bahai (because they are heretics) and slavery for non-Muslims captured in the future Holy War.
The “reformers” no longer exist (or not yet) as such: the ex-president Khatami has carved out a niche for himself touring the world (from Washington to Istanbul), and he presents a positive image of the regime and steers clear of criticism. The rest, the former candidate for the presidency and Speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, and the ex-chief negotiator on nuclear affairs, Hassan Rowhani, have teamed up with Rafsanjani in an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition. They have been joined by the head of the Guardians’ Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the man had described the letter of the Iranian president to Bush as “inspired”.
For the Iranian voters, who do not know the candidates and who will not follow their debates on TV, it is a case of choosing between a revolutionary extremist, a symbol of the group in power, and the “opposition” represented by Rafsanjani. A vote against Rafsanjani, as happened in the presidential election of 2005, would mean not just approving the line taken by the government of Ahmadinajad, it would also pave the way for one of the most extremist mullahs of the regime. He would benefit from a high voter turnout and a good result for “ultraconservatives”.
The opposite applies to a low turnout or a good result for Rafsanjani. The electoral results could have an adverse impact on international policy matters, from the nuclear question to Iraq, from Lebanon to Palestine. Already in 1995, Rafsanjani earned himself a reputation as a pragmatic, hinting at a possible opening of his country, even towards the USA. Yazdi, meanwhile, seeks confrontation: at the beginning of the year, he claimed that the use of nuclear arms against the United States would be licit. On a domestic level, from the economy to human rights, there are few positive developments to be expected: a victory for Yazdi would however mean further progress in the regime’s more extremist tendencies.