Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rafsanjani 1 – Ahmadinejad 0; Two Matches Left

The Assembly of Experts in Session. Tehran, 4 September 2007. (Mehr News)
Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to head the powerful and secretive clerical body that has responsibility over the country's supreme leader. Rafsanjani received 41 votes to become the new speaker of the assembly of experts. His opponent received 34 votes. The assembly has 85 current members. Ten ayatollahs must have been either absent or not participating in the vote. The assembly of experts chooses the supreme leader and theoretically supervises his work and can remove him from power.

The elections season began early in Iran. Ayatollah Meshkini who headed the all-powerful and secretive Assembly of Experts throughout the history of the Islamic Republic passed away in July and the ruling senior clerics were forced to make an unscheduled selection between the main warring factions in today’s Iran: moderate and reformist in one camp and the radical fundamentalists in another.

The traditional conservatives, the third camp once enjoying unlimited power in the country, but nowadays reduced to a club of aging, albeit influential, ayatollahs had to act as the kingmakers. The Assembly of Experts’ members are senior clerics with an average age higher than the number of ayatollahs eligible to vote in the Assembly: 85. They were faced with a real selection: Hashemi Rafsanjani, the maverick survivor of the Iranian politics, who these days has become a champion of the moderates and the reformists, and Jenatti, thrown into the ring at the eleventh hour after the radical fundamentalists realized that their original candidate, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual guru of President Ahmadinejad, would not get the support of the assembly.

41 of the ayatollahs supported Rafsanjani, 35 supported Jenatti. In the larger scheme of things, the result was immediately translated to a victory for the moderates and reformists, headed by Rafsanjani, and a defeat for radical fundamentalists headed by Ahmadinejad: Rafsanjani 1 – Ahmadinejad 0. Two important matches, however, are yet to be played: the March 2008 parliamentary elections and the May 2009 presidential elections.

The two camps will be at war contesting both. The Assembly of Experts victory should not be generalized as a sure sign of victory for the moderates in those upcoming elections. The assembly was loaded with ayatollahs whose very secure positions in the Iranian society combined with their very advanced age scares them of the politics of the radical fundamentalists constantly after creating tensions, conflicts and wars. These ayatollahs want to be left alone to run their own beits, collect millions of dollars every year from the Shia fateful and the Islamic Republic institutions, and they are in no mood to rock the boat.

The general population voting in the two upcoming elections is different. Iran’s growing isolation in the world arena and the worsening economic situation, partly caused by the country’s isolation, should bode well for the opposition and should change the composition of the Majlis and the occupant of the Marmar Palace, formerly the shah’s and now the seat of the Iranian presidency. The government and its radical supporters, however, control the cash flow from the considerable rise in the country’s oil exports. Their free-wheeling spending might make a 20% inflation rate even worst, but might still buy lots of votes.

The struggle for the control of Iran’s government in the next twenty months has just begun.

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