London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Iran and the United States resume talks on a deal for Iran’s nuclear program, there are conflicting signals from Tehran regarding the Islamic Republic’s strategy.
Last Monday a group of 80 or so mullahs gathered behind closed doors in Tehran and elected a new head of a shadowy body named The Assembly of Experts.
So, why should anyone in Iran, even less in the outside world, be interested in such an esoteric exercise?
The answer is because in the current context of Iranian politics this was quite an important event.
But before we see why, let us first see what the assembly is supposed to do, and who is the man now responsible for heading it for the next year.
The assembly consists of 86 senior mullahs representing all of Iran’s provinces and has the power to appoint or dismiss the “Supreme Guide” and to supervise his performance in office and, when necessary, hold him to account.
Under Iran’s Khomeinist constitution, the “Supreme Guide” represents God’s sovereignty on earth and is given immense powers, more than any other head of state anywhere in the world. Several articles of the Khomeinist Constitution, approved in 1979, make it clear that the “Supreme Guide” is also the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, whether they like it or not.
Theoretically at least, the Khomeinist “Supreme Guide” can decide what Islam is and is not at any given time. Whatever he says is regarded as Fasl Al-Khitab (the closing of the debate), unless, of course, the Assembly of Experts overrules him, something that has never happened before.
In more practical terms, the “Supreme Guide” controls the purse strings of the Islamic Republic, one of the richest in the Muslim world. (Over the past three decades the “Supreme Guide” has supervised the expenditure of almost 1 trillion US dollars’ worth of Iranian oil income.) He must give final approval to the national budget and is the commander-in-chief of all armed and security forces. Every ministerial, gubernatorial and ambassadorial appointment must receive his assent. Though elected by universal suffrage, The president of the Islamic Republic cannot assume office without a decree signed by the “Supreme Guide.”
As Roland Dumas, France’s foreign minister in the 1980s, once put it, in the Islamic Republic the “Supreme Guide” is “everything.” “Other officials are actors playing roles such as ministers, ambassadors, etc.”
A composite identity
But who is the new head or president of the Assembly of Experts?
He is Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, an 84-year-old member of the assembly and one of the few prominent revolutionary mullahs who have managed to combine a clerical career with a high-profile political position.
Yazdi has a composite identity. His surname indicates that his family hailed from the great historic city of Yazd on the edge of the Iranian desert, and one of the last spots in Iran to convert to Islam.
Even today, Yazd, where the largest fire temple in the world is located, is regarded by Zoroastrians all over the world as their “holy” city.
And, yet, Yazdi, who was born in Esfahan, hardly ever lived in his ancestral hometown. However, he could not be regarded as a genuine Esfahani either because while still in his teens he moved to Qom, a center of Shi’ite clerical studies, where he trained to become a mullah. There, his teachers included eminent figures such as Ayatollahs Golpayegani, Mar’ashi-Najafi and Ruhollah Khomeini, the future founder of the Islamic Republic.
His refusal to be identified with any city or province in Iran has earned him the sobriquet of khaneh-bedoush (vagabonds) from his adversaries. He has been elected member of the Islamic Majlis, the Khomeinist parliament, and the Assembly of Experts from such diverse places as Qom, Tehran and even Kermanshah, a largely Kurdish province he had never even visited.
When the mullahs seized power in 1979, Yazdi, still in his forties then, was clearly undecided about the course his career should take. He decided to hedge his bets by playing on both tables. On the political side he became a founding member and leader of the Society of Combatant Clergy, a grouping of mullahs seeking governmental office. He acted as Interim Friday Prayer leader for Tehran and managed to become a member of the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a star chamber-like organ that could veto laws passed by the parliament.
At the same time, however, he used his newly won prominence to establish himself as a teacher of theology in Qom with the aim of elevating his rank from a mere Hojjat Al-Islam ( Proof of Islam) to that of a full-fledged Ayatollah (Sign of God).
Over the years his investment in the theological aspect of his career produced important dividends including his elevation to the post of president of the Association of Qom Teachers of Theology, a grouping of pro-government mullahs with much political clout within the regime.
A master of career management, Yazdi succeeded in securing a finger in every pie without becoming exposed to the rough-and-tumble of political struggles. All along he cultivated the friendship of a slightly younger mullah: Hojjat Al-Islam Ali Husseini Khamenei, the future Grand Ayatollah, Imam and “Supreme Guide.”
Investment in his friendship with Khamenei provided a big dividend when in 1989, soon after Khomeini’s death, Yazdi was appointed Islamic Chief Justice, one of the top five positions in the Khomeinist system, which he held for 10 years.
Yazdi’s victory last Monday came as a surprise to many, especially because he had not even hinted at being a candidate until an hour before the secret session started.
“This was unexpected,” said Masha-Allah Shams Al-Waezeen, a Tehran analyst close to the defeated candidate Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “I was genuinely surprised that Yazdi won.”
Yazdi’s win was overwhelming. He collected almost twice as many votes as Rafsanjani: 47 to 24, revealing the failure of months of campaigning by the Rafsanjani faction to promote their candidate as “the inevitable winner.”
Yazdi says he had not revealed his intention to become a candidate to anyone until the time the session started. “Our system is not like what they do in infidel countries where they organize election campaigns,” he says. “In our system the Hidden Imam approaches the hearts concerned and advises them on what course to take.”
Yazdi’s claim means that he had not informed Khamenei about his intention to stand for election. Is that credible?
We may never know the full answer.
However, most analysts agree that Khamenei’s candidate had been Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who did stand in the first round of the voting but decided to withdraw when it became clear he would not win in the second round. Thus, even if Yazdi had not obtained Khamenei’s approval in advance, it is clear that Khamenei supporters switched their votes to him in the second round.
That Khamenei must be happy about Yazdi’s victory became clear on Tuesday when the “Supreme Guide” commented on the results of the election.
“The past and present achievements of Ayatollah Yazdi show that he is eminently suitable for the task he has been chosen for,” Khamenei said.
Yazdi must have doubly enjoyed his victory because Rafsanjani, the man he defeated, had been one of his oldest and most bitter political enemies.
Despite deep political differences, the two men share many points in common. They belong to the same generation, Rafsanjani being a year or two younger. Both come from medium-rich farming families from the edge of the great Iranian desert (Rafsanjani is from Bahreman, near Kerman). Both wear white turbans, indicating their “pure” Iranian origin.
Mullahs who claim Arab ancestry through the Shi’ite Imams wear black turbans. Both Yazdi and Rafsanjani have tried to develop a double politico-religious career. The difference is that Yazdi has emphasized the religious aspect of his career while Rafsanjani has focused on the political side of his.
Yazdi has always claimed a religious title while Rafsanjani started using the title of Ayatollah just over a decade ago. Yazdi’s theological claims are more credible than Rafsanjani’s if only because the former does run a theological course in Qom while Rafsanjani has never taught any religious course.
Business and corruption
Both Rafsanjani and Yazdi are successful businessmen, having amassed immense fortunes since the revolution in 1979.
At different times both men have been accused of corruption. In 2009, then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a live television debate, accused Rafsanjani and his family of acting like a local version of the Mafia and claimed to have “a mountain of evidence” to prove the charge. He never did. The Rafsanjani faction retaliated when Abbas Palizdar, a member of the Judicial Committee of the Islamic Majlis, accused Yazdi of corruption and money laundering. He, too, provided no evidence.
Since accusing political rivals of corruption is standard practice in most Middle Eastern countries, the charges made against both Yazdi and Rafsanjani must be taken with a pinch of salt.
What is certain, however, is the deep difference that exists between the two men’s approaches to the role of religion in politics.
Yazdi seems to be genuinely convinced that politics, and in fact everything else, should be in the service of religion, albeit the official version presented by the Islamic Republic. In contrast, Rafsanjani believes that religion should be in the service of politics. In Yazdi’s view the mosque should control the state.
In Rafsanjani’s view the state, especially in its “pure Muhammadan version” would be in the driving seat.
There is one more important difference between the two men.
Rafsanjani seems to take a good part of the regime’s religious discourse with a pinch of salt. For example, he treats as mere metaphor the claim that God created the entire universe only for the Ahl Al-Bayt (The members of the House of the Prophet Muhammad). In contrast Yazdi, in his speeches and writings, insists on the literal truth of traditions.
For Rafsanjani, religion is a mechanism for controlling the uneducated masses through a code of ethics imposed by the state. For Yazdi, religion is for everyone, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.
Often regarded as the godfather of the so-called “Reformist” faction, Rafsanjani favors openness to the outside world as long as that does not threaten the mullahs’ hold on power.
The former president has learned English and sent his children to study abroad, including in Canada, Belgium and Great Britain. During his two terms as president of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani steered the regime through a number of diplomatic storms with the European Union while also seeking a dialogue with successive US administrations.
Secret channel to Washington
Rafsanjani has always been interested in normalizing relations with the United States. In the 1980s he opened a secret channel with the Reagan administration in Washington and sent his son Mehdi to forge a deal with Lt. Col. Oliver North, then a junior US presidential adviser.
In contrast Yazdi has often warned against the “danger of contamination” in developing contacts with the “infidel” world.
As a leading member of the Society of Combatant Clergy, Yazdi opposed Rafsanjani’s candidacy on both occasions when the latter was elected president. Later, Yazdi also opposed the presidential candidacies of both Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, mid-ranking mullahs regarded as protégés of Rafsanjani.
Yazdi has also played a key role in vetoing Rafsanjani’s candidacy for a seat in the Islamic Majlis and, more recently, the presidency.
“For Rafsanjani religion is a business,” says Ahmad Khavarani, an Iran analyst. “For Yazdi, however, his business is religion.”
During the controversial presidential election of 2009, Yazdi supported Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while Rafsanjani threw his weight behind Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former adversary. When the losing candidates claimed massive fraud, Rafsanjani endorsed their claim while Yazdi dubbed it as part of a fitna (sedition) plotted by Israel and the US.
All that shows that the choice the Assembly of Experts faced was a clear one between a strategy of closing the chapter of the Islamic Revolution in favor of normalization at home and abroad on the one hand, and seizing the opportunity to create an “Islamic superpower” led by Iran on the other.
While Rafsanjani’s discourses are peppered with jeremiads about dangers facing the Khomeinist regime, Yazdi’s tone remains triumphant. Rafsanjani warns that unless Iran changes course it would be heading for big trouble.
In contrast, Yazdi insists that Iran’s only credible adversary, the United States, is “in terminal decline” and that the Islamic Republic’s “spectacular victories in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen” indicate “a strategic shift in the balance of power at least on a regional scale.”
Interestingly, Yazdi may be outflanked by mullahs even more radical, and more starry-eyed, about Iran’s promised domination of the Middle East, than himself.
Thus, Yazdi may appear as a centrist between Rafsanjani, the advocate of compromise, and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who calls for “exporting the revolution” to all Muslim majority countries. (Mesbah-Yazdi is no relation of Mohammad Yazdi.)
But what is the significance of Yazdi’s surprise victory?
Pro-Rafsanjani analysts seek to minimize the importance of Yazdi’s election with two arguments.
The first, advanced by Sadegh Zibakalam, a columnist for pro-Rafsanjani daily Sharq (The East) in Tehran, is that Yazdi is elected for only one year since the whole of the Assembly of Experts will be up for election in February 2016.
“We don’t know who will secure a majority next year, Zibakalam says. “ It would be unwise to write off Rafsanjani.”
Rafsanjani himself has gone even further by claiming that he continues to wield “real influence” in the assembly.
“The real task of the assembly is to choose the next Supreme Guide whenever the occasion arises,” he said last week. “At such a moment I will have my say as a member of the assembly. I don’t need to be president of the Assembly to have my say.”
Other commentators, however, dismiss Rafsanjani’s analysis as wishful thinking.
“The main message of this election is that hardliners refuse to loosen the grip on power in key state entities,” says Hussein Rassam, a former political analyst for the British Embassy in Tehran. “And when the day comes, chances of a hardliner successor to Ayatollah Khamenei continue to remain strong for now.”
In more immediate terms, Yazdi’s election is a setback for President Barack Obama’s policy on Iran, which is predicated on helping the so-called “moderates” capture all levers of power in Tehran and gradually guiding the Islamic Republic towards normality.
Obama has hinted that he believes such a course would take around 10 years to be completed, the period fixed for the nuclear deal being negotiated with Tehran.
During that decade, Khamenei, now aged 76 and reportedly in poor health, may bow out of stage or be pushed to exit it by the Rafsanjani faction. Sources of recent widespread rumors about Khamenei’s “impending demise” have now been traced back to individuals close to the Rafsanjani faction, speculating over sequels of an operation for prostate cancer carried out on the “Supreme Guide.”
Scenario for change
The scenario that the Rafsanjani faction is trying to sell to Obama runs something like this: Rafsanjani takes over the Assembly of Experts thus holding a Damocles sword above Khamenei’s head. In 2016, the Rafsanjani faction wins a majority in both the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Majlis while still holding the presidency through Rafsanjani’s protégé Rouhani.
Rafsanjani has publicly stated on a number of occasions that he has always favored a collegiate leadership system in which the function of the “Supreme Guide” is assumed by a group of three to five mullahs.
Such a reform would heighten the profile of the elected president of the Republic by letting him function as a genuine head of the executive branch of government while also allowing the Islamic Majlis to operate as a genuine legislature. The Council of the Guardians of the Constitution would be merged with the Expediency Council which Rafsanjani has chaired for almost 20 years.
Rafsanjani’s supporters have always seen him as an Iranian version of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist leader who helped lead the People’s Republic out of its revolutionary crisis and towards political normality and economic development. Rafsanjani has often highlighted his pragmatism, hinting that he is prepared to sacrifice ideology to the exercise of power. In 1989, when he had been elected president, soon after Khomeini’s death he surprised many by saying that he and many other political mullahs were prepared to drop their traditional clothes and wear “ordinary suits” if that were necessary for “serving the people.”
Rafsanjani wrote a biography of Mirza Taqi Khan Amir-Kabir, a 19th century prime minister, whom he regarded as his ideal political model. Amir-Kabir is chiefly remembered for trying to introduce Western sciences and rules of government to Qajar Iran in the face of stiff opposition from reactionary mullahs. Rather than trying to build up a clerical profile, Rafsanjani used the media to promote himself as “The General of Construction,” emphasizing economic development rather than religious piety.
Thus, Rafsanjani’s scenario for change includes a gradual toning down of the regime’s religious themes in favor of a new discourse highlighting economic growth, scientific advancement and social reform.
Yazdi, in contrast, believes that downgrading religious themes could lead to the inevitable downfall of the regime.
If people want economic growth and scientific and technological achievements why should they seek such things from the mullahs rather than economists and scientists?
In any case, for Yazdi what matters above all is building a society based on religious values and governed by the Islamic Shari’a. “We did not make a revolution for economic reasons,” he says. “Our revolution was prompted by our people’s thirst for Islam.”
Rafsanjani’s scenario has always suffered from a number of flaws. First, there is no guarantee that Khamenei could be easily scripted out. By all accounts he remains the single most popular figure of the regime within its increasingly narrow support base. In any election organized by this regime and thus closed to “outsiders,” Khamenei or almost anyone he supports would win against anyone fielded by the Rafsanjani faction.
Also, there is no reason why Khamenei should not survive a banal prostate cancer. If he lives as long as Khomeini did, Khamenei would still have at least another 10 years to go, the same length of time envisaged by Obama in his quest for a deal with the mullahs.
Hamid Zomorrodi, a Tehran analyst, believes that Yazdi’s election on Monday shows that the first wheel of the change machine marketed by Rafsanjani has come loose.
“Even if Obama boosts the position of the Rafsanjani faction by giving it the semblance of a ‘diplomatic victory,’ there is no guarantee that other wheels of this ramshackle machine would not also come off in 2016,” he said.