Friday, March 24, 2006

Quest For Unity in Face of Nuclear Crisis Overshadows Politics

Bill Samii, Radio Free Europe:
A great deal of controversy preceded the semi-annual meeting of the Assembly of Experts in early-March, and this is not surprising because the popularly elected body of 86 clerics supervises and selects Iran's top political and religious leader. Therefore, disputes regarding the eligibility of lay-people as candidates and the possibility of postponing the election are particularly relevant because the next assembly election is scheduled for the autumn.

The actual event, however, took place with little fanfare or political commentary, as officials and media heeded calls for national unity in the face of the country being reported to the United Nations Security Council. Indeed the nuclear issue appeared to overshadow other aspects of the assembly's business.

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the assembly on 8 March that this is the time for national unity in the face of the "enemies'" plots, state television reported.READ MORE

He said the U.S. has been unsuccessful in its efforts to create an atmosphere that is hostile to Iran. "They have made a lot of efforts to isolate us, but failed in their mission," he added. "We should move along with solidarity," Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued. "We should be united with respect to the nuclear issue and against the plots of enemy, which we thankfully are." Divisive comments, he said, undermine national unity.

The strident tone of Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami's Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran two days later -- in which he reverted to the insider-outsider argument -- shed light on the political coloring of the call for unity. Arguing that nuclear energy is needed because oil and gas will finish in two or three decades, he referred to critics of the quest for a nuclear fuel cycle as "idiots," state radio reported. "You joined the enemy and helped it in the most sensitive time. Our people will never forget these plots and people who carry them out. When the time comes, the great Iranian nation will give a harsh response to the insiders who move in the same direction as the enemies, just as it has given decisive responses to foreigners."

Khatami also noted that the current nuclear policy does not relate to President Ahmadinejad alone and it began some years ago. "And our situation these days is not the outcome of a single decision taken today," he said. "As the supreme leader graciously said, the decision was first taken during the previous government's term of office. The current government is implementing the same decision now."

Political figures interviewed in the following days also stressed the theme of national unity, with the pro-reform "Farhang-i Ashti" daily explaining on March 11, "The nuclear dossier has become an excuse for all political groups to once again sit with one another around the negotiating table to talk to each other." The daily went on to explain that regardless of a person's political inclination, "They all stress Iran's right to gain access to nuclear technology." But if there is unity on this aspect of the issue, there is much less unity on how to proceed. The reformists advocate continued negotiations, whereas the conservatives and hardliners more in line with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad "speak of resistance and new plans to scare the enemy."

The political divisions over the conduct of nuclear negotiations have appeared before. Moreover, the Ahmadinejad foreign policy team has come in for a great deal of criticism for having alienated many other countries and undermined confidence in Iran's intentions. These differences have less to do with international statesmanship than they do with political, ideological, and age-cohort divisions within the country's political establishment.

The president's personnel policies -- the replacement of ambassadors and top officials in the foreign ministry, and the appointment of younger individuals who he finds are ideologically compatible -- also have earned criticism. The comments of Hojatoleslam Abdul-Vahed Musavi-Lari, President Mohammad Khatami's interior minister, illustrate this point. "It is possible for many people to speak of national solidarity, but in practice take a pair of scissors in their hands and try to eliminate the forces that are loyal to the system or expert individuals who are supportive of the system and feel goodwill towards it and deprive them of participating in taking and implementing decisions," he said ("Etemad," March 11, 2006). "This is something that we are witnessing in our society today."

Musavi-Lari added, "We cannot say that we are in favor of national solidarity but exclude the majority of the forces that are faithful to the system from the cycle of taking and implementing decisions."

Concerns about the Ahmadinejad team's foreign policy efforts and the political aspect of those concerns became clear on March 12, when the legislature's reformist faction summoned the president to explain his nuclear policy (Mehr News Agency). The next day, the deputy parliamentary speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, announced that either the president or the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, would come soon (Islamic Republic News Agency).

Until the call for unity from Hashemi-Rafsanjani, much of the country's political discourse related to the upcoming Assembly of Experts meeting. The assembly held its last meeting in September 2005, and around that time one of the major topics of discussion was membership qualifications. Some members reportedly submitted a motion calling for more advanced theological credentials, and they advocated taking the job of vetting candidates from the Guardians Council and giving it to the country's leading seminarians. Other members of the assembly said it was time to admit laypeople, including women and military personnel.

The next month, another prominent cleric and political figure, former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, also spoke out on this topic. He warned that the effort to limit the choice of candidates would reduce voter turnout ("Etemad," October 23, 2005).

This is a legitimate concern -- overall voter participation figures in Iran have shown a downward trend since the initial enthusiasm of the period immediately after the revolution, and this is particularly noticeable in Assembly of Experts elections. Participation was 77 percent in 1982, 37 percent in 1990, and 46 percent in 1998. The regime, furthermore, bases its legitimacy on public participation in elections, and it sees the regular holding of elections as a sign of its democratic nature.

Karrubi, who has declared that he will not stand in the assembly election ("Hemayat," December 10, 2005), returned to the subject of candidates' eligibility in a letter to the head of the assembly, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini. He wrote that the supreme leader's responsibilities touch on subjects other than theology, so the members of the assembly, who are responsible for supervising the supreme leader, should have expertise in a range of subjects ("Aftab-i Yazd," February 16, 2006). Moreover, Karrubi wrote, vetting of candidates should be the responsibility of prominent theologians. The Guardians Council should not have this responsibility, he explained, because its members usually are candidates for membership in the assembly. Without saying it outright, Karrubi also hinted at the conservative political bias of the Council of Guardians.

In mid-February, reports surfaced that some of these changes had been implemented. Assembly membership reportedly would increase to 120, and 40 members of this group would be experts in areas other than jurisprudence ("Aftab-i Yazd," February 16, 2006). Like candidates in earlier elections, they would have to be pious and have good reputations, but they would also have to be skilled in economics, law, legislative affairs, planning, or politics, or they should hold a military leadership position.

However, it later turned out that these reports were premature. An assembly member, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, had presented a proposal on the membership of laymen to the assembly's statutes committee, but the proper procedures were not followed and there was no follow-up on the subject ("Mardom Salari," February 18, 2006).

Moreover, the proposal was unlikely to be welcomed. Ayatollah Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi, a reformist member of the assembly, said earlier efforts to change the regulations had been rejected ("Sharq," February 18, 2006). "The majority of members are opposed to such plans, and we can see examples of it in other plans, such as the one to change the authority for verifying the credential of candidates and the one for holding open sessions, or the issue of exercising supervision, which is 100 percent related to the domain of the Assembly of Experts," he explained. "All these previous cases faced opposition."

In a not entirely unexpected development, a member of the Guardians Council also spoke out against the proposal to make laymen eligible for assembly membership. Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai initially said the concept is illegal, but he then backtracked and said he was only expressing his personal opinion as a legal expert ("Mardom Salari" and "Etemad-i Melli," February 20, 2005). He added that the Guardians Council is not involved in this issue, and if the assembly decides to include laymen then the council will go along with this. Kadkhodai said in early-March that the topic remains under review, and the Supreme Leader could have the final say ("Mardom Salari" and "Sharq," March 5, 2006).

A member of the assembly, substitute Tehran Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, dismissed the possibility of laypeople as members and urged the media to end its speculation ("Kayhan," March 2, 2006). He also said that such a plan is illegal, and it will not be considered because it was submitted illegally ("Sharq," March 2, 2006). The current members, he added, can perform all the necessary functions.

A prominent pro-reform cleric and university professor, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, also spoke out on the issue of assembly membership. He noted that the Iranian constitution does not specify that members must be experts at interpreting religious law or must be sources of emulation, and there is no law prohibiting the membership of non clerics ("Sharq," March 7, 2006). Kadivar, who has shown in the past that he is not averse to taking controversial positions, said there are currently three problems with the Assembly of Experts -- all members are men, all members are clerics, and all members are Shi'a.

There are occasional calls for delaying the Assembly of Experts election and holding it at the same time as another one. In mid-February, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi recommended holding the assembly election and the 2007 municipal council elections at the same time ("Etemad," February 15, 2006). Last year, a member of the Guardians Council said the election should coincide with the 2008 parliamentary elections ("Farhang-i Ashti," July 23, 2005).

Such demands usually are part of broader calls for consolidating elections and do not get farther than media speculation. However, the committee responsible for the Assembly of Experts' internal regulations did hold a meeting on February 12 to discuss the most recent proposal, although its outcome was not revealed ("Etemad," February 15, 2006). The political advantage of delaying the assembly's election is not immediately apparent. It may reflect, as its proponents say, an effort to save money and reduce disruption. It is also possible that proponents of such a delay hope there would be a bigger turnout if citizens are voting for people whose duties -- such as parliamentarians or municipal council members -- affect their daily lives.

The Assembly of Experts met on March 7 and 8, and as always, the actual business of the two-day meeting took place behind closed doors. Indeed, it would appear that the reporting of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council overshadowed some of the assembly's business. Hojatoleslam Ansari complained that everything but matters within the assembly's responsibilities was discussed, and his proposal to widen the membership did not come up ("Aftab-i Yazd" and "Etemad," March 9, 2006). Ansari recommended greater openness about the normally closed sessions of the assembly, and he said a public report on the leader's performance should be made available. The Assembly did reject the Interior Ministry proposal that the elections of the assembly and municipal councils should coincide (Fars News Agency, March 10, 2006). Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said the assembly election will take place in the autumn.