A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.
But this election has now taken on even greater importance with a news report from Michael Ledeen that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seriously ill and may be near death. Khamenei’s incapacity or death will require the Assembly of Experts to select a new Supreme Leader for the Islamic Republic, and Mesbah-Yazdi and President Ahmadinejad have been working relentlessly in recent weeks to secure alliances with a number of independent candidates in the Assembly of Experts election to possibly see Mesbah-Yazdi elevated to Supreme Leader.
The selection of Mesbah-Yazdi as Supreme Leader would undoubtedly herald a significant shift in Iran’s internal and external politics. If anything, Mesbah-Yazdi’s elevation as Supreme Leader would mark an extremist turn in the Islamic Republic’s approach to the West, as it would reinforce his protégé’s, President Ahmadinejad, aggressive stance on the development of nuclear weapons.
Timothy Furnish, professor of Middle East History at Georgia Perimeter College, author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and editor of Mahdiwatch.org, told me yesterday that the consequences of such a scenario could be even more drastic, saying that Mesbah-Yazdi’s selection as Supreme Leader and the policy shift that would follow would be an inevitable prelude to war with Iran:
I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.
As I noted in an article published in August by FrontPage, Ahmadinejad’s Apocalyptic Faith, the extremist worldview promoted by Mesbah-Yazdi centers on the belief of the imminent return of the Shia’s 12th Imam, the cardinal element to the Hojjatieh faith. It is the implications I describe in that article of what they believe about the return of the 12th Imam, however, that should give Western leaders concern:
But rooted in the Shi’ite ideology of martyrdom and violence, the Hojjatieh sect adds messianic and apocalyptic elements to an already volatile theology. They believe that chaos and bloodshed must precede the return of the 12th Imam, called the Mahdi. But unlike the biblical apocalypse, where the return of Jesus is preceded by waves of divinely decreed natural disasters, the summoning of the Mahdi through chaos and violence is wholly in the realm of human action. The Hojjatieh faith puts inordinate stress on the human ability to direct divinely appointed events. By creating the apocalyptic chaos, the Hojjatiehs believe it is entirely in the power of believers to affect the Mahdi’s reappearance, the institution of Islamic government worldwide, and the destruction of all competing faiths.
In the event that Mesbah-Yazdi/Ahmadinejad faction can garner enough votes to secure the ayatollah’s selection as Supreme Leader, one internal development that is sure to follow is the political consolidation of power in Iran gravitating even more to the clerics even more than it has been since the death of Ayatollah Khomenei, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Under his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, some political power has been shifted to lower institutions, but Mesbah-Yazdi has complained about the loosening of the political and social reins from the clerics and has made no secret for his distaste of democracy.
The news concerning Ayatollah Khamenei’s health is sure to increase the political jockeying in the last week before the December 15th election between the three major factions: the majority traditionalist hardliners, which have been led by Khamenei; the reformist faction, led by former President Rafsanjani; and the Mahdist faction, led by Mesbah-Yazdi and Ahmadinejad.
Last month, the traditionalists attempted to shift the Assembly of Experts election their way by having almost 350 potential candidates ruled unsuitable – leaving only 144 candidates for the 86 seats in the Assembly. Most of those ruled ineligible came from Rafsanjani and Mesbah-Yazdi’s supporters, including Mesbah-Yazdi’s son, Ali Mesbah-Yazdi. But in response, the political organization established in October to promote the Mahdist candidates, the Elite of Seminaries and Universities, has been in recent weeks soliciting approved independent candidates running unopposed in their respective areas for support of Mesbah-Yazdi for Supreme Leader when Khamenei dies or is removed from office.
The three competing factions within Iran have been clashing in other arenas outside of the Assembly of Experts election. As Ledeen notes in his article, the National Assembly last week voted to cut Ahmadinejad’s term of office as President by one year – a victory for Rafsanjani’s reformist faction. And then the traditionalist hardliners, many of whom have grown concerned at Ahmadinejad’s saber-rattling directed towards the U.S. and Israel, have seized the opportunity to stir-up criticism in recent days of Ahmadinejad’s videotaped attendance at the opening ceremonies of the Asian Games in Qatar, which featured scantily-clad dancing girls.
The efforts by both the reformist and traditional hardline factions to damage Ahmadinejad and his allies are a testament to the sudden rise and growing influence of the Mahdist elements inside the Iranian government. Ahmadinejad’s election as president last year, helped in no small measure by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi in support of his candidacy, came as a surprise to many of Iran’s ruling elite; and the popular support Ahmadinejad enjoys has been considered an important shift in power from the traditional hardliners to the Mahdist faction.
But in the event that Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi is selected as Khamenei’s successor, this would mark an even more decisive shift in favor of the extremist elements in Iran’s government – making next week’s election of the Assembly of Experts, who will select Iran’s new Supreme Leader, all the more important.