Iran's Clerical Old Guard Being Pushed Aside

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 11, 2008

TEHRAN -- After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's followers toppled a U.S.-backed autocracy in Iran, he brought to power a coterie of politically engaged clerics who sought to create the world's first Islamic republic. Nearly 30 years later, a new generation of politicians is sweeping aside those clerics, many of whom had become proponents of better relations with the West and gradual steps toward greater democracy.

The newcomers are former military commanders, filmmakers and mayors, many younger than 50 and only a few of them clerics. They are vowing to carry out the promises of the revolution and to place Iran among the world's leading nations. This rising generation has the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader in Iran's political system, who backs the government's assertive foreign and nuclear policies.

Last month, local election councils disqualified scores of clerics and their allies -- including Khomeini's grandson, Ali Eshragi -- from seeking election to parliament March 14. Such candidates have been disqualified before, but analysts said the absence of members of the clerical old guard from other institutions of power in Iran means they will find it difficult to mount an electoral comeback.

"These newcomers are pushing the followers of the imam out of power," said cleric and political veteran Rasoul Montajabnia, using an honorific to refer to Khomeini. "We are being dealt with disloyally."

Analysts say the purging of those clerics strengthens President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the most prominent leader of the new generation, and will result in a smaller political class that is more beholden to the supreme leader and less tolerant of even internal dissent.

"The newcomers don't have the same power base as the old guard," said Mehrdad Serjooie, a political analyst and former journalist. "They have no reputation dating from the time of the revolution, no direct access to oil money and no important supporters.

"The old factions often could operate more independently because they were powerful" in their own right, Serjooie added. "The new generation depends more on the leader."

Khamenei two weeks ago publicly vetoed a decision by Ahmadinejad to ignore certain laws passed by parliament. "This was a signal to show who is in charge," Serjooie said.

The newcomers say their emergence is part of a generational change. "For the last 30 years we have seen the same names in Iranian politics. It was natural that clerics took control of the country's affairs after they led the revolution, but as time goes by it's natural that younger non-clerics take over," said Saeed Aboutaleb, 37, a member of parliament since 2004.

He said clerics would remain important. "We need them for guidance, just as the late Imam Khomeini wanted. In the end, this is just a change in clothes," he added, referring to the overcoat and turban worn by clerics and the suits worn by younger politicians. "The newcomers are just as religious."

If the clerics have a chance at regaining the political prominence they enjoyed in the years following the 1979 revolution, analysts say, it will be under the leadership of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ayatollah and former close aide to Khomeini who lost the presidential election to Ahmadinejad in 2005.

During Rafsanjani's two terms in the 1990s, his faction controlled several important executive and economic institutions in Iran, among them the Oil Ministry. He helped bring cleric Mohammad Khatami to power as his successor in 1997.

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