- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a potential setback at the hands of the nation’s traditional conservatives in elections Friday for a government oversight body that will one day choose a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Several allies of fundamentalist Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a spiritual and political adviser to Mr. Ahmadinejad, have been blocked by the country’s religious establishment from running for seats on the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 clerics with nominal oversight powers over the supreme leader.

Ayatollah Mesbah -Yazdi, the ultra orthodox ayatollah’s own son, was among those bounced.

“The old conservatives among the clerics are trying to hold onto their ability to steer the Islamic revolution, and they are not supporting Ahmadinejad’s way,” said A. William Samii, an Iranian political analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Mehdi Khalaji, who studied theology at Qom, Iran — the intellectual heart of Shi’ite Islam — said Ayatollah Khamenei sent a clear signal in the run-up to Friday’s vote that he wanted to rein in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s fundamentalist allies, who have pushed an aggressive line on Islamic practice, Israel and confrontation with the United States.

“Khamenei has sent a very clear message to the Ahmadinejad faction that he has full control of the assembly and nobody can bypass him, even the hard-liners,” said Mr. Khalaji, now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

Iran’s Council of Guardians has long vetted election lists and disqualified “unworthy” candidates — including those for the Assembly of Experts. The Bush administration has complained repeatedly that the vetting has targeted the country’s beleaguered pro-reform parties.

Of the 493 candidates who applied to run for seats on the Assembly of Experts, the Council of Guardians approved just 144. With 86 seats in the assembly, some candidates will be running without opposition. Almost no reformers survived the cut.

But the winnowing process underscored that the bigger conflict now underway in Tehran is between a pragmatic, conservative clerical old guard and an ultra orthodox Islamist faction represented by Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesba-Yazdi.

Kamal Nazer Yasin, the pseudonym of a well-respected Iranian politician analyst and free-lance journalist, said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s polarizing presidency has infused the Assembly of Experts’ campaign with a “sense of urgency.”

If the hard-liners “manage to extend their influence over Iran’s main religious oversight body, many political analysts in Tehran think the country will make a radical, possibly irreversible departure in both foreign and domestic policy,” he wrote in a recent analysis.

Mr. Khalaji played down the importance of the Assembly of Experts in Iran’s faction-ridden government. It exercises little real oversight of Ayatollah Khamenei and takes a central role only when a new supreme leader must be chosen. Voter turnout for the assembly races, held every eight years, have steadily declined, reflecting its lack of clout, he said.

But Mr. Khalaji said the vote will shed light on Ayatollah Khamenei’s power and his ability to keep the populist challenge from President Ahmadinejad under control.

While largely excluding reform parties from the Assembly of Experts race, election authorities unexpectedly permitted the reform parties to mount a real challenge in the municipal council races in Tehran, also being held Friday.

The local councils are widely derided as weak, but the Tehran mayor’s post has proven a political springboard before. The little-known Mr. Ahmadinejad used his record as the capital’s top official to spark his upset win in the 2003 presidential election.



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