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Iran’s Worst Clerics
As the Iranian opposition takes its case to the country's religious leader, here's a look at five hard-line mullahs who could stand in the way.
AYATOLLAH AHMAD JANNATI
Position: Chairman of the Guardian Council, the 12 member group that oversees elections and is tasked with ensuring the government complies with the principals of the Islamic state. He also holds seats on the Assembly of Experts and Expediency Discernment Council, two other top regime bodies. Jannati frequently acts as “substitute imam” for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by delivering the Friday prayers in Tehran.
Worldview: “He’s considered a real hardliner. Way, way, way on the right. He’s a real dying breed,” says Geneive Abdo, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation who has reported extensively on Iran’s clerics. The 82-year old Jannati has used his Friday sermons to call for the destruction of Israel and the United States and encourage Iranians to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and an Islamic state in Iraq.
Possible election role: The Guardian Council vets candidates before they can run, generally weeding out unacceptable reformists and women. As chairman of the council, the hard-line Jannati wields enormous influence over Iran’s political process. At the same time, experts say, his influence has been somewhat diminished lately.
“Jannati is old and he’s an idiot,” says Rasool Nafisi of Strayer University. “He was put in his position only because of his absolutely loyalty [to Khomenei].” Jannati has been eclipsed somewhat by Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani, his more politically shrewd and ideologically promiscuous rival within Iran’s clerical establishment, according to Nafisi. But given his revolutionary credentials, powerful office, and nearly blind devotion to Khamenei, it would be a mistake to write him off completely.
AYATOLLAH MOHAMMAD-TAQI MESBAH-YAZDI
Position: Member of the Assembly of Experts, the group tasked with selecting Iran’s supreme leader
Worldview: Nicknamed “professor crocodile” by reformists, Yazdi (not to be confused with fellow Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi of the Guardian Council) is the hard-liner’s hard-liner. “He speaks only in rhetoric,” says Abdo, who has interviewed him. “When you ask him questions, you don’t get answers, you get slogans.”
Yazdi has publicly supported the use of suicide bombing against the enemies of Islam and the use of death squads against political reformers. He is often described as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, though at times, even the incumbent president has been too moderate for him. When Ahmadinejad tried to change the law to allow women to attend soccer matches, he was publicly rebuked by Yazdi.
Possible election role: The current turmoil should be a test of Yazdi’s true loyalties. In recent years, there has been speculation that Yazdi has been eyeing Khamenei’s position. If true, Yazdi could exploit the current turmoil to move against the supreme leader, but Nafisi thinks the rumors are overblown. “He’s on Khamenei’s payroll,” he says. “[Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini hated Yazdi. It was Khamenei who lifted him up and gave him his position.”
On the other hand, Nafisi also believes that the relationship between Yazdi and Ahmadinejad has been exaggerated, noting that in the run-up to the election Yazdi “said nothing in support” of the president. But if Yazdi is not overly fond of Ahmadinejad, he absolutely despises Iran’s reformists and is unlikely to favor concessions to them.
GRAND AYATOLLAH NASER MAKAREM SHIRAZI
Position: A grand ayatollah, the highest rank for Shiite clerics, Shirazi was very politically active before and during the 1979 revolution and played a role in writing the Islamic Republic’s constitution.
Worldview: Shirazi is among the most conservative of the Iran’s ayatollahs and one of the most influential. His views on gender roles are particularly extreme; he’s written that men should be permitted to beat their wives for failing to perform their sexual obligations. He is a “major player in terms of advocating the authority of the supreme leader from a religious point of view,” says Nafisi.
Possible election role: Shirazi, who can be relied upon to go to bat for Khamenei in any potential power struggle, came to his position of influence within the clerical establishment through a somewhat unusual route. After the revolution, Shirazi was given control of Iran’s sugar exports and became very wealthy in the process. “Today, Shirazi is powerful in Qom [Iran’s center of religious scholarship] because he is the man the other clerics go to when they need money,” Nafisi says. The “Sultan of Sugar” has more than a few favors to call in if his friend Khamenei needs it.
AYATOLLAH QORBANALI DORRI-NAJAFABADI
Position: Iran’s prosecutor general
Worldview: Dorri-Najafabadi has earned some ridicule in the West last year for calling Barbie dolls and Harry Potter a “destructive culturally and a social danger,” but his role in stifling dissent in Iran is deadly serious. In his former post as minister of intelligence, Dorri-Najafabadi was implicated in the murders of numerous reformist politicians and journalists.
He was forced to resign that post under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, but under Ahmadinejad he has reemerged as a major player in the Iranian state’s security apparatus. “He’s a very brutal guy,” says Nafisi. “He’s involved in nearly every atrocity.” Dorri-Najafabadi also spoke out shortly before the election to emphasize that whoever won, they should continue the struggle against Zionism.
Possible election role: Dorri-Najafabadi’s political influence is limited, but he can still make life miserable through his influence in Iran’s security and legal systems. He has described pro-Mousavi marchers as “opportunists” who are “engaged in criminal activities.”
But Dorri-Najafabadi has been sending mixed signals recently. He chastised election authorities for not allowing Ahmadinejad’s opponents equal time during televised debates and the Association of Combatant Clerics, a leading group of reformists, has asked that he be invited to participate in the Guardian Council’s deliberations on whether to hold an election recount. It would be the ultimate irony if this longtime scourge of Iran’s reformist movement emerged as a key ally.
HOJJATOL-ISLAM GHOLAM-HOSSEIN MOHSENI-EJEI
Position: Minister of intelligence and security
Worldview: A member of the infamous Ministry Of Intelligence and Security since its creation, Mohseni-Ejei is dedicated to protecting the Islamic Republic from enemies foreign and domestic. He has on numerous occasions accused the United States and Israel of spying inside Iran and has routinely blames domestic unrest on foreign involvement. Even after Iranian courts cleared U.S. journalist Roxanna Saberi of any wrongdoing, Mohseni-Ejei publicly maintained that she was a spy.
Mohseni-Ejei has a reputation, like Ahmadinejad, who appointed him to his current post, for being tough on corruption and brought prosecutions against a number of government officials in his former post as prosecutor general. However, reformists point out that he has almost never prosecuted clerics suspected of corruption, earning him a reputation as an enforcer for the ayatollahs. (Mohseni-Ejei is not an ayatollah himself but a hojjatol-Islam, a middle-ranking cleric.)
Possible election role: Since Iran’s election crisis began, Mohseni-Ejei has followed his usual habit of blaming the unrest on international actors. His ministry has carried out numerous arrests of “provocation agents” and he has warned that if demonstrators disturb the peace, they will “not only be arrested… their identities will be made public.”
Like Dorri-Najafabadi, Mohseni-Ejei is one of the most influential clerics in Iran’s security establishment, but unlike him, “he remains quite active politically,” according to Nafisi. He can be expected to lobby the state to resist reform and quash dissent.