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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.

Khatami's supporters, known here as reformists, included many onetime revolutionaries, such as former students who came to regret their 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which led to the severing of ties between Iran and the United States. Rafsanjani's political allies teamed with the reformists and together they began arguing that Islamic law is dynamic and adaptable. They also favored reestablishing relations with the United States through compromise and proposed minor democratic reforms. Later, political fights broke out between the two groups.

Although they held executive power, Khatami and his supporters were prevented from carrying out most of their plans by the judiciary and the Guardian Council, a 12-member body that answers to the supreme leader. Both were dominated by opponents of relations with the United States and of political or religious change.

Most of the candidates disqualified last month belong to Khatami's broad reformist coalition, which sought to compete with the newcomers in this year's parliamentary elections. The Guardian Council is considering appeals and will announce its decisions March 5.

Rafsanjani's supporters, whom the newcomers have accused of corruption, a lack of revolutionary zeal and even spying, decided not to stand in the upcoming elections, although they have not given an explanation.

"We believe we should open the atmosphere in the country, give more freedom and practice detente in the international arena. The newcomers are dogmatic and don't believe in the wishes of the people," said Montajabnia, the cleric, who is a member of the National Trust Party and part of the reformist coalition. "This is a power struggle for the political direction of this country."

The struggle began almost four years ago with the surprise election to parliament of a majority representing the newcomers, and it continued with Ahmadinejad's presidential victory and the subsequent replacement of tens of thousands of experienced government managers.

The newcomers, some of whom had spent years in secondary positions in the Iranian system but had no prominent role in the revolution, have taken over important positions traditionally held by clerics. Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former student of physics and deputy minister of education, became the first non-cleric to head parliament following the 2004 election.

The top negotiator on nuclear issues, cleric Hassan Rowhani, was replaced by Ali Larijani, a former head of Iranian state television. Larijani was replaced in October by Saeed Jalili, another non-cleric and a close ally of Ahmadinejad.

Among the newcomers are a few clerics, almost all of whom studied at a religious school in the holy city of Qom known for its strict interpretation of Islam.

Ahmadinejad's faction, which calls itself "principalist," consists of newcomers who say they want to act according to the principles of Islam and the revolution. Many members are former commanders in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a force created after 1979 to protect the revolution. Members of another, more technocratic group have similar ideals and backgrounds but are at odds with the government on how to implement those principles. Larijani, who is seeking election to parliament, is emerging as the head of that faction.

"After a purge, the remaining faction divides. The split in the newcomers group will finally result in two main new groups in Iranian politics," said Iraj Jamshidi, political editor at Etemaad newspaper.

The newcomers say the politicians who preceded them haven't realized the goals of the revolution. "There has been a lot of abuse of power," said Aboutaleb.

Jamshidi, whose newspaper is considered reformist, said the "clerics who used to hold high positions are being held responsible for the current problems in Iran."

Still, Rafsanjani holds one last trump card. In September he was chosen as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, an elected council of 86 clerics that selects, supervises and can dismiss the supreme leader.

"We don't know what's happening in the assembly," Serjooie said. "But we can be sure the new generation is now trying to get as many other institutions as possible under their influence, to cement their newly attained power."

Jamshidi said there is little likelihood that the cleric-politicians who gained power after the revolution will rebuild their standing. "They are not a part of the decision-making process anymore," he said. "I don't see any chance of a comeback."

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