- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 19, 2006

TEHRAN — A hard-line cleric who opposes all dialogue with the West is a leading contender to become Iran’s next supreme spiritual leader.

In a move that would push the country even further into the diplomatic wilderness, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, 71, who publicly backs the use of suicide bombers against Israel, is campaigning to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini, 67, as the head of the Islamic state.

Considered an extremist even by fellow mullahs, he was a fringe figure in Iran’s theocracy until last year’s election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fellow fundamentalist who views him as his ideological mentor.

He is known to many Iranians as “Professor Crocodile” because of a notorious cartoon that depicted him weeping false tears over the imprisoning of a reformist journalist.

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and his supporters will attempt to tighten the fundamentalists’ political stranglehold next month, by standing in elections for the Assembly of Experts, an 86-strong group of theologians that would be responsible for nominating a replacement for Ayatollah Khamenei, whose health is rumored to be failing.

Opposing them will be a coalition of moderate conservatives led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, and members of the increasingly marginalized reformist movement, who have formed an alliance to prevent what both groups fear is a drift toward political extremism.

Appointing Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi as supreme leader would be a massive blow to Western efforts to get Iran to cease its nuclear program and backing of militants in Lebanon and Iraq and among the Palestinians. Although he has never spoken publicly on the issue, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi is thought to support the idea of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said: “Mesbah-Yazdi is on the hard right and very authoritarian. He doesn’t even believe in democracy. Having him in power would lead to a much more hard-line, puritanical rule in Iran. It would not be good news for the West.”

The Assembly of Experts is elected every eight years and has the power to appoint, supervise and impeach the supreme leader, who, in practice, wields ultimate power. Although Ayatollah Khameini, who has been in office since 1989, is expected to remain for the time being, the assembly elected next month is almost certain eventually to decide his successor.

The run-up to the vote has been marred by complaints of rigging in favor of hard-liners. The Guardian Council, a hard-line body that vets candidates, is accused of vetoing reform-minded clerics from taking part. Around half of nearly 500 applicants have been barred from standing.

In a letter to the council last week, Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric, accused the council of “injustice” and misjudgment, saying that it would lead to “people’s distrust in the authorities and the clergy.”

The reformists’ despair has been deepened by fears that few of their disillusioned supporters will vote, despite the possible consequences of a hard-liner victory. Constant political interference in the electoral process has persuaded many Iranians that it is not worth voting, an attitude that many reformists concede helped Mr. Ahmadinejad to win the presidency last year.

“Many reformists have lost faith, although the hard-liners will hope to organize a mass turnout among their own supporters,” Mr. Ansari said.

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who will be standing for election to the Assembly of Experts, regularly meets with Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose presidential bid he endorsed in a fatwa, or holy order.

The cartoonist whose drawing earned “Professor Crocodile” his nickname suffered the same fate as the journalists whose frequent imprisonment was depicted. He, too, was sent to prison.

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