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IRAN - Mar 8 - Qom Highlights Iran Power Battle.

Iran's main fundamentalist coalition recently presented its choice of candidates for next week's parliamentary election to the Society of Scholars of Qom Seminary, the oldest clerical organisation in the city and the seat of Shi'ite religious learning in the country. The society agreed by consensus on two of the six names and added a third of their own, producing a final list for the three Qom seats made up of staunch conservatives but not extremists. But the days when the society's decisions went unchallenged are over. Some members of the society wanted to be candidates themselves and decided to run as independents. More significantly, the most radical scholars within the society, believed to be led by Muhammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, mentor to President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, decided to present their own list. They went along with the first two names agreed by the society but added one of their own. The electoral battle in Qom, the biggest centre of Shi'ite learning in the Islamic world, from which the leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution emerged, is part of the broader power struggle within the Iranian clerical and political establishments. Although Qom has lost some of its political influence - analysts say that clerics are particularly uneasy about the rise in influence of Iran's Revolutionary Guards - it remains the key source of religious legitimacy for political groups. But while the society held a monopoly on religious power after the 1979 revolution, other clerical groups have since emerged, reflecting different shades of conservatism. "The power of Qom has declined but all power centres still need Qom's religious legitimacy for their survival", says a political analyst in the city. The evolution within the clerical establishment was manifested in the 2005 presidential elections, when the society backed Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, but Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi's group and public opinion, even in Qom, favoured Ahmadi-Nejad, considering him more dedicated and humble. "The clergy have strong ties with the people but people also form their opinion and political knowledge from other sources", says Abolfazl Moussavian, a reformist cleric and professor at Mofid University in Qom. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi has been an emerging force. Known as one of the most intellectual clerics in Qom he is also considered one of the most extreme ideologues. Senior ayatollahs have expressed concern that the radical trend in Qom is distorting religious teachings by spreading superstitious beliefs, such as connection to infallible imams or making decisions based on dreams. "They [promoters of this trend] are after power ... We want freedom of expression and thought", says Moussavian. Not surprisingly Ahmadi-Nejad has had a sensitive relationship with senior clerics. After defying a clerical ruling that women should not be allowed in football stadiums, he was denied meetings with the senior clerics for a year, an unprecedented move. Analysts in Qom, however, say that after the president relented, relations with the clergy improved. The elections this Friday will be an important test of public opinion ahead of next year's presidential poll, indicating whether Ahmadi-Nejad's popularity is waning, as his opponents claim. The poll to choose a new 290-member parliament is largely a competition between various trends within Iran's conservative political establishment, often referred to as the fundamentalist camp since it gradually moved to the right. Although their rivals, the reformists close to Muhammad Khatami, the moderate former president, were hoping to stage a comeback, many of their prominent candidates were disqualified by conservative bodies that deemed them not loyal enough to Islam and the constitution. All the fundamentalists profess unconditional obedience to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but differ on how best to promote his objectives. Many find Ahmadi-Nejad's attitude unnecessarily provocative. In the Qom election, radical clerics decided not to challenge the consensus among the senior clergy on the candidacy of Ali Larijani, the former top security official and nuclear official, even though he stepped down after differences with Ahmadi-Nejad. Larijani tops the list backed by the society, as well as the one supported by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. "Maybe Larijani didn't agree with some plans, but I don't think he is against the government of Ahmadi-Nejad", says Muhammad Arab, the secretary of the main fundamentalist coalition. Larijani is expected to win easily. But politicians are closely watching the race for the third seat. Some analysts point out that every rising force in Qom creates a counter-trend, with signs Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi's group is being challenged by a more moderate group of scholars.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Mar 15, 2008
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