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Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson enters an election in Iran

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference in Tehran on Aug. 29. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

The grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who steered Iran's 1979 revolution and was the Islamic Republic's first supreme leader, appears likely to challenge for a seat in the regime's Assembly of Experts, the 88-member body that chooses and helps guide the supreme leader.

Iranians will elect a new assembly in February, as well as a new parliament. The elections are shaping up to be a battle between Iran's reformist camp and its hard-liners. Hassan Khomeini is somewhere in the middle; he has denounced "extremism" and backed current President Hassan Rouhani and his administration's overtures to the West.

"Khomeini’s candidature now could help boost a loose alliance of candidates supporting ... Rouhani," writes Iranian journalist Rohollah Faghihi in the Guardian.

Khomeini is a 43-year-old cleric living in the holy city of Qom who oversees the Institute for the Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works. He delivered a speech Aug. 29 that gestured to his duty to his grandfather; it has been widely interpreted as a signal that he seeks a seat in the important chamber. Only Islamic jurists and scholars are eligible to run for the Assembly of Experts, and the vetting process usually bars reformers from entering.

The move comes in the aftermath of the agreement forged in July between Iran and world powers over Tehran's nuclear program, a deal that observers believe has highlighted a political divide within the Iranian establishment.

On one hand, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has maintained his tough stance on Iran's supposed enemies. He has insisted that dealings with the United States would not extend beyond the compromises made over Iran's nuclear capabilities; he recently declared that Israel would not exist 25 years from now.

Yet, as an article by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times reporter in Tehran, points out, Rouhani is singing from a slightly different song sheet.

On Sunday, the Iranian president expressed hope that two years of difficult diplomacy with the West did not mark "the end of the way" but "a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries." Those "various countries," Erdbrink suggests, are a direct allusion to the one that really matters: the United States.

The voluble debate over the Iran deal in Washington has been watched closely in Iran, with skeptics of rapprochement with the United States citing hostile Republican statements as proof of American bad faith. Rouhani is soldiering on, and could yet meet President Obama this month as world leaders convene at the United Nations.

Erdbrink explains what may be afoot:

Despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s hard line in public, however, most Iranians and some well-connected analysts say that he is more on Mr. Rouhani’s side than he lets on, and is merely hedging his bets in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, they say, why would he agree to a nuclear deal at all?
“In the end even the supreme leader wants to have better relations with America,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. “But he is angry over the bad remarks coming out of the United States, so he wants to wait if the deal works before he allows relations to get better.”

Rouhani cares primarily about the sanctions relief afforded to Iran's economy should it comply with the terms of the deal. He has repeatedly insisted that the country's diplomatic isolation — which deepened during the rule of his firebrand predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — was damaging for its future prospects.

It's unclear whether that opening will lead to a broader thaw with Washington.

"Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and Rouhani supporter tells the Times. "Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that."

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