Robert Fisk: The silent cleric who holds the key to Iran's future

Iranian politics do not run on the supposedly Western principle of majority rule

Tuesday 29 December 2009 01:00 GMT

We like to believe – and newspapers and television like us to believe – that the battle for Iran is being fought on the streets of Tehran, of Isfahan, of Najafabad. Untrue.

The future of the nation is being decided in Qom, among the clerical leaders of Iranian Shia Islam; and one of the most influential of them – perhaps the closest of all the ayatollahs to President Ahmadinejad – is silent.

Just why Mohammed Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts – the clerics who choose the "Supreme Leader" of Iran – should refrain from comment at such a critical and violent period of the Islamic Republic's history, is unclear.

But we can be sure that he remains in constant contact with the president whose dubious re-election provoked the street demonstrations, killings, and subsequent judicial tortures and deaths in Iran.

For if Ahmadinejad has a mentor in Iran, it is not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader but Mesbah-Yazdi, the 75-year-old conservative oligarch who has enormous power over the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji militia.

For him, the death last weekend of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was a relief, as it was for many of the conservative clerics who long feared the man's influence over the reformist opposition in Iran.

Montazeri's passing – far from being an eternal torch for future reformers – is a tragedy for those who wanted to create a more humane, civil society in the country.Yet not even on this death would Mesbah-Yazdi speak.

The two biggest men left in Montazeri's shadow – Mir Hossein Mousavi and ex-president Mohammad Khatami – are now in greater danger than ever.

The brutal suppression on the streets of Tehran over the weekend only emphasised the determination of the conservatives to crush their opponents. If these two men were detained – and Mr Mousavi's nephew was shot dead on Sunday – then the final lethal struggle for the Republic's soul would be dramatic indeed.

And if Ali Khamenei fails in his duty as Supreme Leader then who might step into the shoes of the Leader himself? Many in Iran suspect that this is the very position to which Mesbah-Yazdi aspires.

True, he only controls a small ultra-conservative faction in the local assembly. But Iranian politics do not run on the supposedly Western principle of majority rule.

Back in June, Mesbah-Yazdi told Revolutionary Guards that they need not be worried by the political "earthquakes" that had occurred since the election. "Know that God created this world as a test," he said. "The Supreme Leader holds a great many of the blessings God has given us, and at a time of such uncertainties our eyes must turn to him."

That is how Mesbah-Yazdi would like to run Iran. To understand Qom, think Tudor England.

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