Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Atieh Bahar: News - ANALYSIS-Iran supreme leader holds balance in complex system

Atieh Bahar: News: "ANALYSIS-Iran supreme leader holds balance in complex system
By Paul Taylor

TEHRAN, June 5 (Reuters) - Iran may be choosing a president on Friday, but the most important figure in its unique Islamic system of government is not up for re-election.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic revolution, to give him his full title, was elected unopposed for life by an assembly of aged clerics in 1989.

Some foreign media depict the uncharismatic clergyman as the leader of the hardline Islamic faction that has tried to trip up reformist President Mohammad Khatami at every turn. Other critics see him as the prisoner of the conservatives.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pilloried him last year as "Shah Khamenei" and accused him of "mounting a creeping coup against the democratic process", causing outrage in Iran.

Officials close to Khamenei dispute such versions. They say he is upholding his constitutional role of maintaining a balance among multiple power centres and preserving the country's Islamic values.

"The leader is playing the role of father above the factions. Lots of those beliefs about him are not really true," said Hojatoleslam Taha Hashemi, a centrist cleric who is a member of Khamenei's exclusive Qoran study group. Asked why Khamenei did not dismiss far-right clerics in the judiciary and prayer leaders whose anti-democratic tirades have caused embarrassment, Hashemi said: "You have to bear in mind that these people have their supporters in the people too."

ENEMIES AND CONSPIRACIES Under the system of "velayat-e faqih" (rule by a religious legal scholar) created for his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei controls the judiciary, the security forces, the Guardian Council that vets laws and poll candidates, public broadcasting and foundations that own much of the economy.

Without Khomeini's aura or religious credentials -- a double handicap -- the former president has struggled to assert authority. Yet he shows no sign of wanting to transform his role into that of a constitutional monarch, as some reformers hoped.

In the last 18 months, he has used his position to condemn reformist newspapers as the voice of Iran's enemies, bar parliament from debating a more liberal press law and embrace revisionist denials of the Nazi Holocaust.

He recently launched a crusade against corruption, reflecting public anger at clerics and their families accused of raking off millions from the public sector. Khamenei's speeches are larded with denunciations of "enemies" and "conspiracies". His favourite image is to compare Iran's foes, the United States and Israel, to snakes.

But even some of his critics say he is misunderstood. A former communist imprisoned with him in the 1970s described him as an intellectually-sharp, kind-hearted poetry-lover who helped protect his former cellmate when he was arrested in a post- revolutionary purge of leftists.

Some Iranian analysts see Khamenei as a closet ally of the reformist president, trying to slow the pace of change to avoid confrontation and violence without undermining Khatami's course.

"Whenever Khatami is on the brink of being toppled, for example by the serial murder of dissidents, during the student dormitory riots or after the parliament elections, the leader appears to move to the right but actually rescues Khatami," said analyst Amir Ali Nourbakhsh of the Atieh Bahar consultancy firm.

He argued that Khamenei is often trapped between the conservative and reformist factions, and Iran's policy paralysis stems from the fact that no one has the unrivalled power to break the deadlock.

"There is no most powerful man in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if he is more powerful, he doesn't have more than 50 percent of power," Nourbakhsh said.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN Little is known about what transpires behind the curtain between Iran's two senior leaders, who hold a weekly meeting.

A third player, ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of an Expediency Council of senior leaders that mediates among competing institutions, is also thought to be influential in tilting the balance.

Last year's crackdown on the press was launched after investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, now in jail, accused Rafsanjani of being behind the serial killing of dissidents by a so-called rogue security unit. Analysts say Khamenei took a political risk by ordering parliament to shelve a more liberal press bill. Speaker Mehdi Karroubi read Khamenei's letter in public, showing how even the leader now has to function in an era of greater transparency.

But the gamble paid off. Reform was slowed but not stopped, and both sides stepped back from the brink of confrontation.

"Khamenei paid a heavy price to prevail, but he has somewhat calmed the situation. Some people argued that if he had not done that, the conservatives would have turned violent," said Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political scientist.

A group of "new Islamic thinkers" led by Hashemi, seeking to ally Islam with scientific rationalism, is trying to put some distance between Khamenei and those they brand "extremists".

But Hadian said: "The hard right still believe that if they crack down, the conservative camp will have to join them."

The austere supreme leader has also had something of an image makeover since the smiling Khatami became president.

Khamenei, who lost the use of an arm in a bomb attack by armed dissidents in the early 1980s, now smiles more and wears wire-rimmed designer glasses instead of the darkened spectacles that used to give him a gloomy appearance. © 2003 All Rights Reserved. Atieh Bahar Consulting."

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