London, Asharq Al-Awsat- A large crowd of Hezbollah supporters, prominent figures from the Iranian Islamic regime, clerics and hawza [Shia religious seminary] students gathered at the Shahid-Motahhari School (formerly Sepahsalar School before the revolution) last Tuesday morning for the funerary procession of the head of the Iranian Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini (84 years old). Meshkini was also the Friday prayer Imam in the city of Qom, Iran’s religious capital.
But the absence of Sheikh Ali Akbar Feyz, popularly known as Ayatollah Meshkini at this time is considered a serious blow to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. The late head of the Council of Experts was the one responsible for bestowing an aura of holiness around Ahmadinejad after he took power.
On the eve of his assumption of the presidential post, Meshkini delivered a speech that surprise many in which he said that Imam al Zaman (the Mehdi or the Hidden Imam among Shia believers) had voted for Ahmedinejad, and that in turn, the president had consulted the Imam before selecting the candidates for his government.
Ayatollah Ali Meshkini was born in 1923 in a deserted village in the town of Meshkin-Shahr in the province of Azerbaijan. His father used to sing religious songs in the Shia gatherings held in the surrounding villages, in addition to working in a house that belonged to one of the landowners of the area.
This landowner was very generous towards Meshkini’s father, sending Ali, the son, to school with his own son. Moreover, when he found out that the father was yearning to visit Karbala, he gave him money to travel to Iraq, sending with him the remains of his father’s body whose dying wish was to be buried in the Nejev’s Wadi al Salam cemetery.
It was later recounted by Meshkini that his parents headed towards Iraq in an abandoned Russian military car that had been left behind in Iraq after World War I. Throughout the journey, which lasted two weeks, Ali Meshkini was shaking with fear because of the wooden coffin containing the remains of the old man was placed above his head.
Upon arrival to Iraq, they buried the remains of the body in Wadi al Salam cemetery, and the family settled in Negev. Meshkini’s father attended the classes of the most distinguished clerics of the time, including Shirazi, Shahrudi and al Hakim.
Accompanied by his father, Ali Meshkini attended the religious seminaries where he studied Quran, the principles of ‘fiqh’ (Islamic jurisprudence) and the recitation of religious songs.
Upon returning to his hometown, the 16-year-old followed in his father’s footsteps and toured the villages to recite the religious songs. A few years later, the young Ayatollah Meshkini went to Qom to resume his religious studies. There, he attended the classes of the late Grand Ayatollah and marja’a [highest echelons of Shia religious authority] Muhammad Hussein Burujerdi; Ayatollah Mohaqiq Damad and Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari.
However, the compelling fact remains that the late Meshkini never returned the favor to Shariatmadari, despite having being taken under his tutelage and also receiving a monthly allowance from him, owing to the ayatollah’s stature. And yet, when Ayatollah Meshkini assumed the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts after the revolution, he appointed his son-in-law, Muhammad Muhammadi Reyshahri, as the Minister of Intelligence (and before that as the prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy) while simultaneously launching a campaign against Shariatmadari. Meshkini called for the removal of Shariatmadari’s title and clerical status.
Montazeri was ousted at the end of Ayatollah Khomeini’s era as a result of his protest against the execution campaign that Iran witnessed after the end of the war with Iraq. Participants in the aforementioned plot included Meshkini, Reyshahri, Ahmed Khomeini and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Meshkini’s dream was fulfilled after he succeeded Montazeri as head of the Assembly of Experts, and moreover, in the elevated position of the Imam for the Friday prayers in Qom. Ayatollah Meshkini was appointed as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts in its third session for a period that lasted over 20 years.
It is worth mentioning that a contributing factor to Meshkini’s rise to power, apart from his betrayal of Shariatmadari and his involvement in the plot to overthrow Montazeri, was his decision to hand over one of his sons (who was in one of the oppositional groups) to the Islamic Revolution persecutor in Evin prison. The son was put on trial and sentenced to execution; however the sentence was reduced to a lifetime of imprisonment at the orders of Khomeini.
Meshkini’s absence means that the arena is now open for the battle to fill his seat. Constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts is considered Iran’s highest legal authority, as it reserves the power to appoint, oversee, and if necessary, dismiss the Supreme Leader.
However, the picture could change dramatically if Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is more fortunate that others, is selected to fill Meshkini’s seat. It seems that Khamenei still wields full control over that matter and reserves the authority to prevent Rafsanjani from attaining the seat.
According to inside sources, Khamenei does not favor Rafsanjani nor Misbah Yazdi, but rather is more inclined towards Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary.
Furthermore, sources close to Rafsanjani say that the campaigns launched against him lately over the past few months, especially led by the articles published on the websites of Ahmedinejad’s allies, have far surpassed the red line labeling Rafsanjani as the ‘Godfather’ and the ‘head of a mafia’ and saying that his sons spread ‘mischief on the land’.
Such campaigns aim at eliminating Rafsanjani from the circle of power, along with Khatami and Karroubi. Those behind these campaigns will not allow Rafsanjani to reach this seat, which could be a ladder up to the peak, which is Wilayat al Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurists].
This battle, according to sources, is expected to be difficult and possibly bloody in which the winner will emerge as the future leader of Iran.
According to media sources, Meshkini’s duties will be carried out by First Deputy Chairman, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with the assistance of the presidium, until a new chairman is appointed. The tentative date for the session is expected to be some time after August 23.