Elections in Iran Ayatollahs Jostle for Power in Iran

Iranian voters hit the polls on Friday to elect one of Iran's most powerful institutions, the Assembly of Experts. The panel of religious leaders appoints the Supreme Leader, a post that has been held for over 20 by Ayatollah Khamenei. Can Ayatollah Jasdi, a rising contender, usurp his throne?

30 million Iranian voters have been called on to participate in one of the country's most important elections. The vote on Friday will determine who sits on the next Assembly of Experts – and hence, who ultimately calls the shots in Tehran. The panel of 86 ecclesiastics is considered to be Iran's epicenter of power, since it appoints the Supreme Leader and is also the only institution with the power to remove him from office again once he has been elected for life.

For almost two decades, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 67, has been watching over Iran's revolutionary heritage. But recently he has come across more as a weak and unassertive man whom President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has overtaken in importance. Now Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, 72, is working to increase his power in the Assembly, with a view towards maybe one day taking over from Khamenei.

Yazdi is Ahmadinejad's political and spiritual mentor. He preaches a return to "the values of the Islamic Revolution" and to the "original Islam." Even conservative clerics warn of the consequences should the Yazdi faction achieve power: this would amount to a "Talibanization" of Iran, they say. Because of his pronounced nose, and also because of his appetite for power, Yazdi is known as the "crocodile" in the streets of Tehran.

Not just anyone can run for the highest office in this theocratic state. Another panel, the Guardian Council, decides on the candidates. Thus, the current religious leader's brother, the comparatively liberal clergyman Hadi Khamenei, is not allowed to run. The arch-conservative Guardian Council did not approve his candidacy -- or that of over 300 other contenders.

Prominent politicians have criticized this process in an open letter. Former Parliamentary Speaker and presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi called the Council's decision an "injustice" and a "misjudgment." And former head of state Mohammad Khatami accused the Council of being biased in favor of the ultra-religious faction.

Conservative pragmatists in the camp of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani want to prevent the rise of the Yazdi faction. Allied with moderate conservatives, they hope to gain a majority in the Assembly of Experts -- that is, if they are able to motivate their less than interested supporters to go to the ballot on Friday.

amb/spiegel

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