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Hardline Clerics Hold Hush-Hush Convention

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

25 Feb 2011 16:54Comments

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Indications that plotting Rafsanjani's fall was at center of agenda.

[ analysis ] Two important events occurred almost simultaneously this week in Iran -- the elections for the national Chamber of Commerce and an unusual two-day session of the powerful Association of Theological Teachers of Qom Seminary, held in the holy city of Qom. The association is considered one of the main bastions of clerical reaction in Iran, although it counts a few forward-looking clerics among its members as well. Among the association's notable achievements are the excommunication of a well-known Muslim professor on the charge of apostasy, formal disqualification of the reformist Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei for his backing of the Green Movement, and unfailing support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even in the face of mounting clerical and popular discontent. Its present chairman, Mohammad Yazdi, is considered a key leader of the hardline forces in Iran. The ultra-reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi is also a regular fixture in the group.

The association's deliberations carry great weight in Iran, even after the precipitous decline of the traditionalists' support base. That's why its infrequent meetings are closely watched for clues as to the latest political and religious developments in the country.

The public learned of the scheduled meeting just days ago. The group's public relations arm was silent before and during the session, which was billed as the "Seventh Joint Meeting of the Association of the Qom Theological Teachers and the Clerics of the Land." Journalists who contacted some of the participants reported that mobile phones were switched off. In fact, the seventh convention was a departure in that the speakers' list was not announced on the group's website in advance. All that was known beforehand was that there would be eight workshops held on Wednesday, which would submit their findings to the plenary session on Thursday for final approval. Other than reiterating several times that the meeting would be centered on matters outlined by the Supreme Leader, nothing was mentioned about the specific agenda for the two-day meeting or the reason that non-member clerics were being brought into a joint session. Revealingly, though, Sayed Mohsen Saleh, the association's political director, told one intrepid reporter that "the current session will be purely devoted to internal matters" -- that is, to nonpolitical issues. Of course, a speech by National Security Council chair Saeed Jalili (pictured standing with hand over heart) on Thursday gave the lie to Saleh's statement.

Astute observers saw a direct link between the hastily convened meeting and potentially the most momentous gathering of the Islamic state in the next few months, namely the upcoming elections for the leadership of the Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts, on March 8 and 9. The looming question is whether Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani can keep his title as the assembly's chairman or if he will finally be ousted as many people expect. A chorus of clerical and non-clerical power blocs have called for the chairman's head following the surprising resurgence of the Green Movement on February 14 and Rafsanjani's own studied failure to either condemn or repudiate it.

All the protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the fifth of the seven items in the final resolution document that went to the press on Thursday night says in part, "The clergy, these combatants of God and soldiers of Imam Mahdi...stating their utter repugnance with the seditionists [the Green Movement activists]...demand from the elite and the leaders an unambiguous and explicit repudiation of the American-Zionist sedition movement." It seems clear that the hardline clergy is mobilizing all its resources for a final showdown with Rafsanjani in March.

Beyond the otherwise extraordinary opacity of the last two days, there were several other interesting surprises to be appreciated.

First, the Revolutionary Guard-operated Fars News Agency, which published photos of the plenary session's speakers, did not include a picture of Mesbah Yazdi, who reportedly delivered the concluding speech. Was this omission meant to dispel the notion that the whole meeting might have been orchestrated by Rafsanjani's nemesis?

Second, according to the Fars photo array, Nategh Nouri (pictured in white turban above), who had shunned publicity for close to two years after Ahmadinejad called him a thief before an audience of millions, was on the rostrum. He has made a mini-comeback lately to condemn the "sedition movement." Mohammad Golpayegani, who represents the Supreme Leader at important functions, also made an obligatory appearance.

Third, this marks the first time in five years that the association did not extend an invitation to Ahmadinejad. On the surface, this suggests a disastrous fallout between the two hardline camps. However, despite some bad blood between the two sides, each needs the other badly. In fact, it is scarcely ten days since the president's "special clerical adviser," Hojatoleslam Saghay Biria, who is a former student of Mesbah Yazdi but famously lacks significant scholarly status, was elevated to the position of the association's head secretary.

Most likely, the invitation to Ahmadinejad was not forthcoming because it would have necessitated a reciprocal invitation to the heads of the other major government organs as happened in the previous session, lest the association be accused of partiality. Any discussion of sacking Rafsanjani with the old man present would have been unthinkable. Instead, Jalili, the president's ally on the National Security Council, was given the opportunity to make his speech.

In the end, all these complicated maneuverings may amount to very little if the versatile Khobregan chairman can outsmart his rivals next month.

Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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