Tue, Sep 26, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Iranian election could fortify authoritarian grip

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TEHRAN

Political jockeying by fundamentalist Iranian clerics for the coming election of the Assembly of Experts, the group charged with overseeing the country's supreme leader, is raising concerns that the government will move further toward authoritarianism.

As in the last elections for the assembly eight years ago, the watchdog Guardian Council has barred reformist clerics.

And this year, some clerics and newspapers have been suggesting that a senior fundamentalist cleric who is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mentor, Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, may be trying to expand his already growing power by packing the assembly with loyalists trained at his education center in Qum.

Mesbah Yazdi, 72, is close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he directly influences the government through loyalists appointed to high positions after Ahmadinejad took power last year.

His followers also have great sway among Iran's Revolutionary Guards and the Basij volunteer paramilitary force.

The Iranian Constitution adopted after the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini provided for a system of checks and balances meant to ensure that the government would not move toward authoritarianism. So even as it enshrined a supreme leader, who has the final word on all matters, it created an Assembly of Experts, or religious jurisprudence, to oversee his activities.

But after the death of Khomeini in 1989, a system of vetting election candidates was put in place to eliminate any threat to the rule of the supreme leader.

At least on paper, the official powers of the Assembly of Experts include the ability to replace the supreme leader if he acts against Islam or the Constitution. But Mesbah Yazdi and Khamenei are allies -- the ayatollah finances Mesbah Yazdi's school in Qum -- and the likeliest outcome of a power play by Mesbah Yazdi would be to strengthen the supreme leader, even at the expense of the assembly.

Mohsen Kadivar, a senior reformist cleric who was barred from running in the previous election, said, "The fight in the election will be between the traditional clerics and the fundamentalists."

He identified the traditionalists as those who believed that the Assembly of Experts was a higher authority than the supreme leader.

Mesbah Yazdi is a particularly aggressive defender of the supreme leader's absolute power, and he has long held that democracy and elections are not compatible with Islam.

"Democracy means if the people want something that is against God's will, then they should forget about God and religion," he said in July 1998. "Be careful not to be deceived. Accepting Islam is not compatible with democracy."

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