Iran Moves to Curb Hard-Liners

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 8, 2005

ISTANBUL, Oct. 7 -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite Muslim cleric who holds ultimate authority in Iran, has altered the country's power structure by granting a relatively moderate panel new authority to supervise an elected government increasingly dominated by religious hard-liners.

Khamenei expanded the authority of the Expediency Council, an appointive body whose longtime chairman, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a fixture of Iranian politics and invariably described as wily insider. Rafsanjani lost last June's presidential election, but Khamenei's new decree, made public Oct. 1, gives Rafsanjani at least nominal supervision over the administration put in place by the winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The council also was given supervisory authority over the Iranian parliament, despite the squawks of lawmakers who accused the council of a power grab. Previously, the council was only empowered to settle disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council -- another, more influential appointive body -- and to advise Khamenei.

"The adjudication of the Expediency Council is the final word," council secretary Mohsen Rezai told reporters in Tehran, the capital, this week. "And even if other state sectors do not agree with it, it is the final word and they have to accept it."

The practical effect of the change remains to be seen. The structure of Iran's theocratic government is complex and its operations are opaque.

But analysts found significance in the timing of the change, which had been proposed to Khamenei years earlier. Coming now, the expansion of the Expediency Council's power was widely viewed as, at minimum, a gesture intended to restore some prestige to Rafsanjani. He played a key role in elevating Khamenei to the position of supreme religious leader after the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution that installed Iran's religious government.

Others also saw an effort to balance the rise of hard-liners who control Iran's elective branches of government, as well as the judiciary and the Guardian Council. Control of parliament shifted to conservatives last year in an election the Guardian Council closed off to anyone else.

Ahmadinejad took office in August after a more credible victory -- a landslide fueled by a populist economic appeal. But he has had a shaky start. His cabinet selections proved controversial, and his confrontational approach to critics of Iran's nuclear program has been questioned even in Tehran.

"This is more than symbolic. This is the leader saying, 'We're moving too far right,' " said Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iran for the International Crisis Group, a research group based in Brussels. "I'm loath to call Rafsanjani moderate, but in the current context, he is a voice of moderation."

Iran's government is united in defending its long-secret nuclear program, which it insists is intended only to generate electricity. But foreign diplomats said Iran's cause was hurt by the strident tone of the address that Ahmadinejad, a novice at foreign relations, delivered at the United Nations last month. U.S. diplomats seized on it to successfully lobby the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the Security Council.

Rafsanjani, 71, appeared to join in the criticism of Ahmadinejad at Friday prayers a week ago in Tehran.

"You need diplomacy and not slogans," said Rafsanjani, who is both a cleric and a millionaire businessman. "This is the place for wisdom, the place for seeking windows that will take you to the objective."

Ahmadinejad's cabinet nominations also drew criticism, and some ridicule. Parliament rejected four of his choices, including the nominee for Iran's vital oil ministry. The candidate had claimed to have a doctorate from an American college that turned out to be an on-line degree.

"Ahmadinejad has already shown that he needs a lot of supervision," said a professional political analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named because his employer had not authorized his remarks. "Just last week his government sent two 'double urgent' bills to the parliament. He gets so excited."

Parliament approved his choice for interior minister, Mustafa Pourmohammadi, only after grilling him on his tenure as a top official in the Intelligence Ministry in the mid-1990s, when its agents were executing government critics in their homes. Two other ministries are headed by veterans of Iran's security services, and five more by veterans of the Revolutionary Guards, whose influence in government has steadily grown in recent years.

"The new guys are from a relatively dark place in the Islamic republic," said Ray Takeyh, an analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations based in Washington.

Sadjadpour said generational politics appeared to play a role in expanding the powers of Rafsanjani's council. Along with Khamenei, 66, Rafsanjani lived through the trauma of the Islamic revolution's early years, when the broad-based uprising against the U.S.-backed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, soon splintered into bloody factional fighting. That was followed by a bloody eight-year war with Iraq.

"They go back three or four decades, and they've been through a lot together," Sadjadpour said. "I think Khamenei is tending domestically to his power base, and he does want to avert an international crisis."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company