In Iran, Even Some On Right Warning Against Extremes

In Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nine months as president, Iran's hard-liners have commandeered the nation's political debate, putting reformists on the sidelines.
In Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nine months as president, Iran's hard-liners have commandeered the nation's political debate, putting reformists on the sidelines. (By Alireza Sot Akbar -- Associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 27, 2006

TEHRAN -- Nine months after the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Iranian politics has shifted so sharply to the right that some traditional conservatives are warning of the dangers of radicalism.

With reformists sidelined and Ahmadinejad setting a strident new tone on the global stage, figures from the extreme right of Iran's political spectrum are defining the terms of political debate in the country. In remarks that set off a domestic firestorm, a senior cleric close to the new president suggested in January that Iranian voters were largely irrelevant because the government requires only the approval of God.

The remarks by Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah, and similar comments by an aide, were roundly criticized, even on the editorial page of Kayhan, a traditional showcase for hard-line thinking. Iranian political insiders said the flap offered a window on intense infighting at the highest reaches of Iran's theocracy just as world attention is focused on the government's determination to proceed with a nuclear program that skeptics call a cover for atomic weapons.

"Ayatollah Mesbah is an extremist," said one Iranian official close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the soft-spoken cleric who has been Iran's supreme leader since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

"Ayatollah Khomeini warned the people lots of times not to allow these people, the Shia Talibans, to come to power in Iran and have space," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that Khamenei has judged it prudent to accommodate even extremists within the system and accord them respect. "Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei feel these people can do a lot of damage. They can damage Iran. They can damage Islam. They are like the Taliban. They are like al-Qaeda. They say they know what Allah expects from us -- that we should do what he wants from us without paying attention to the consequences.

"And it's a very dangerous belief."

The tension highlights significant divisions within Iran's conservative camp, often viewed from outside the country as a turbaned monolith. In reality, 27 years after the 1979 revolution that brought Shiite clerics to power, Iranian politics is a nuanced landscape defined largely by the lessons taken from the previous quarter-century.

Traditional conservatives describe themselves as firm but flexible. While remaining committed to the precept that clerics should hold ultimate authority, they were chastened in the 1990s when reformists -- determined to lessen the intrusion of the state into private lives and show greater tolerance for dissent -- won landslide electoral victories.

Other conservatives, who proudly call themselves fundamentalists, argue that reformists were hollowing out the Islamic Republic from within. Equating dissent with treason, they demanded a hard-line defense of the revolution's tenets, including strident opposition to the United States and Israel.

In recent years, the two camps united at election time, making common cause against reformists. But after the votes were counted, moderate conservatives were left unsatisfied.

"There was a problem in our structure, our conservative political structure," said Amir Mohebian, a leader in a conservative faction that absorbed some reformist inclinations, including cautious engagement with the West. "We start very well, but the result was not under our control."

Mohebian said the outcomes of 2003 elections for local councils, the 2004 contest for parliament, "and now the presidency," were "not our result." Each succeeding contest tightened the right's grip.

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