Dissent at the Top
by RASOOL NAFISI
30 Sep 2009 23:04
Photo: Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Mohammad Datsgheib
[ comment ] The seismic effect of Iran's June election has now reached the Assembly of Experts, the most conservative institution in the Islamic Republic. The Assembly is in charge of oversight of the Supreme Leader's activities and selection of a new leader if the incumbent is rendered ineffective or dead.
Defenders of the Islamic Republic's political system will argue that the Assembly is a democratic institution as it has the potential ability to remove the Supreme Leader - although this has never happened in the regime's 30-year history. The logic goes that as the Assembly members themselves are elected, therefore the Leader is in turn, elected. However, Assembly members are vetted by the Guardian Council, who are, in fact, appointed by the Supreme Leader. This vicious circle was created after the Constitution was amended in 1988, just before Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assumed the mantle of supreme leadership.
The 86 Assembly members are a mixed group, as demonstrated by the last internal election, which led to the appointment of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (a moderate) as chair, and the defeat of hardline cleric Ahmad Jannati. In general, however, the handpicked group is considered loyal to Khamenei. In an interview, Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric now in exile, called the group "courtier clerics."
Many conservatives ignore the Assembly's façade of democratic procedure, and simply claim God directly chooses the Supreme Leader through the grace of the Twelfth Imam. Clerics Mohammad-Taghi Messbah-Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi have famously argued that the Supreme Leader does not need the people's vote, approval or allegiance because God has already selected him.
Normally, during the Assembly's twice-yearly meetings, it has acted as the Supreme Leader's rubber stamp. No minutes or accounts of the meetings have ever been published. However, this year, for the first time, news leaked from the most recent meeting: Rafsanjani had excused himself during deliberation of the ratification of a public statement wherein the Supreme Leader was praised and qualified as the best possible choice for the position. Khamenei attacked him indirectly in his sermon a couple of days later, when he criticized those who remain silent about critical matters.
More important than Rafsanjani's silent protest, was the speech of Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Mohammad Datsgheib, which was also leaked to the public. In the speech, Dastgheib criticized the Assembly for remaining silent during the post-election turmoil. He requested that the leaders of the opposition, Mehdi Karroubi and Seyyed Mir Hossein Mousavi, to be invited to the Assembly to defend their positions. He went as far as questioning the legality of the office of the Supreme Leader itself. He argued that the Constitution itself had been breached due to illegal activities of the government in the June presidential election. The authority of the Supreme Leader is given by the Constitution, Dastgheib argued. By this statement, Dastgheib, who comes from one of the most prominent clerical families in Shiraz, not only dismissed the Supreme Leader, but he asserted that the source of his authority is the Constitution.
Dastgheib, an elderly ayatollah in his late seventies, has turned into a major critic of the regime and Khamenei in particular since the June election. In a series of speeches in recent months, Dastgheib has continued to jab at Khamenei, without mentioning his name. In one occasion in Shiraz, Dastgheib openly called Khamenei a traitor and asked him to repent in order to escape hell fire in the after life.
Meanwhile, Khamenei's supporters in the Assembly, led by Abbas Ka'bi, began circulating a petition to expel him from the Assembly. Ka'bi said that he had gathered enough signatures -- 26 in total -- to do so. State media began issuing accusations against Dastgheib, until Khamenei himself interfered, asking for respite. Khamenei understood that despite their disagreements, Dastgheib commands much respect within the Assembly, and that expelling him would have only added to the political chaos.
The Assembly's meeting after the election was the first test to exert even a modicum of democratic discourse and decision. Had the Assembly publicly admonished Khamenei, without expelling him, and found him responsible for the post presidential election events, it could have revived republicanism within the Islamic Republic. Such an action could have added to the credibility of the Assembly of Experts, and demonstrated to the Iranian people and the world that the regime has its own mechanism for checks and balances. However, the ham-handed declaration of the Assembly in praising Khamenei put to rest any hope for democratic changes from within the regime.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau