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Mahdavi Kani’s death leaves room for hard-liners to expand

Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi listens to the opening speech during the Assembly of Experts‘ biannual meeting in Tehran, Sept. 14, 2010. (photo by REUTERS/Caren Firouz)

The passing of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani has not only created a vacuum in the powerful institutions he oversaw, but also leaves the traditional conservatives within the Islamic Republic without a prominent head and at the mercy of more extreme leaders.

Mahdavi Kani was the most senior and respected leader within the traditional conservatives. Hechaired the Assembly of Experts, the body that supervises and elects the supreme leader, headed the Combatant Clergy Association and founded Imam Sadegh University, which many officials within the Islamic Republic attended.

While Iran has fluid political groups and associations rather than official political parties, Iranian conservatives, or Principlists as they are called, fall into two major groupings: traditional conservatives and hard-liners.

In an editorial in Ebtekar headlined, “The fate of the Principlists after the passing of Ayatollah [Mahdavi Kani],” Mostafa Danandeh wrote that before the emergence of “extreme conservatives” (hard-liners) such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Endurance Front, led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, “traditional conservatives” took Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani’s statements “as the final word.”

Now, however, Danandeh predicts “fundamental changes” for conservatives after the loss of four major figures. In addition to Mahdavi Kani, prominent conservative Habibollah Asgaroladi died in November 2013. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and Nategh Nouri, two individuals who were prominent within the Combatant Clergy Association, have “separated” from the conservatives over their positions in favor of Reformists in the contested 2009 presidential elections.

Danandeh wrote that the absence of these figures “leaves the field open for a return of the extremists from the right.” He accused these individuals “both inside and outside of parliament” of not tolerating any statements that oppose their own views and attempting to eliminate critics from the political arena. He said that extremists have built a presence in even the “most traditional conservative party, the Islamic Coalition Party.”

The editorial did not directly accuse Mesbah Yazdi of any wrongdoing, but indirectly stated that he has been nominated, as the unofficial leader of the conservatives, to take over some of the positions Mahdavi Kani left behind.

Mesbah Yazdi, who was known as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, is a hard-line cleric who has collided with President Hassan Rouhani on a number of issues and has long had issues with Mahdavi Kani.

According to foreign-based Digarban, Mesbah Yazdi did not issue a message of condolence for the passing of Mahdavi Kani due to their “deep and old differences, which has resulted in fissures between the conservatives.” This all has contributed to a lack of unity among conservatives, something many believe cost them the 2013 presidential election.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presided over the prayers for Mahdavi Kani’s funeral. Standing behind the supreme leader was Rouhani, head of the judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, head of the Basij organization Mohammad Reza Naghdi and the head of the armed forces. Also present were Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council; Ayatollah Rafsjanai, head of the Expediency Council; and Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, interim head of the Assembly of Experts.

After the funeral, Reza Naghdi offered the highest praise possible within the Islamic Republic. He told reporters that that if for any reason someone were unable to seek the advice of the supreme leader, they could always refer to Mahdavi Kani.


Iranian-Turkish relations strained over Syrian agendas

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R), speaks with Turkish officials while meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister at the time, in Tehran, Dec. 3, 2006.  (photo by REUTERS)

In an Oct. 13 speech marking the new academic year at Marmara University, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked, “What kind of religious leader is this [who] says ‘[Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad is the only one challenging Israel’? Assad didn’t shoot a bullet at Israel. Assad killed 250,000, and you’re still supporting him, sending him money and arms.” The religious leader in Erdogan’s crosshair was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Marmara speech was possibly the first time since the Syrian crisis erupted that Erdogan has directly slammed Iranian policy on Syria. The weirdest part of it was his criticism of Khamenei, a clear indication that what once had been strong ties between the two countries has been radically altered by the clash of interests laid bare by the ongoing civil war. Despite deserving to lead the news, Erdogan’s remarks did not receive the media coverage they warranted in Iran, the Arab world or internationally.

While discussing Erdogan, an Iranian official told Al-Monitor by phone, “The death of 250,000 in Syria was caused by nations that back the terrorists in Syria. Turkey is one of those states, and it has full responsibility for the situation today. Mr. Erdogan personally knows that Iran is innocent. Iran is helping a legitimate government restore control over its land and fight terrorists coming from around the globe to kill and terrorize civilians.”

The source also said that Tehran had decided that the time is not yet right to respond publicly to what he called Erdogan’s “irresponsible” comments. He stated, “It will require hours of speaking to remind him of his last visit and what he told the [supreme] leader. We don’t have to time for this right now, and we know this is only for domestic consumption.”

The official further said of Erdogan, “He has to ask himself, who opened the borders? Who gave weapons to these extremists? Who is it that transformed his country into a huge training camp?” He explained that Iran had been surprised by Erdogan’s rhetoric. “This is another indication that Ankara isn’t really serious about cooperating to end the crisis in Syria. It’s such a shame that an essential country in the region is still not determined to fight terrorism, is hesitant to help its Kurdish neighbors in any way and at the same time is attacking those who warned of this end from the beginning.”

Erdogan paid his most recent visit to Tehran on Jan. 29, as prime minister. Supposedly quoting Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Naqavi Hosseini, spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, told reporters Oct. 8 that Erdogan would be paying Iran a presidential visit and meet his counterpart and other high-ranking officials. It is not known whether the visit is still on after Erdogan’s critical remarks.

Turkish-Iranian relations appear to have peaked during Erdogan’s January visit and the signing at that time of a strategic cooperation treaty. Khamenei’s words were as clear as day, with his being reported as saying that Iranian-Turkish relations were at their best in centuries and that both countries must seize the opportunity to solidify their relationship. Erdogan offered that Iran felt to him like a second home. So what happened? Why do Turkish-Iranian relations now appear to be going in the opposite direction?

As with most other shake-ups in the region, Syria appears to be the problem. Both countries earlier expressed a keenness to move toward compromise, but events on the ground threw barriers in the way. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the formation of the US-led coalition imposed on all parties the need to move forward with plans to deal with the Middle East’s new sick man, i.e., Syria. There was no more time for diplomacy or kind words, as the map of regional alliances became clearer by the day. As it turned out, Turkey and Iran were not in the same boat. Each backed a different set of allies on the ground and around the region.

Turkey’s strategist and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been seriously thinking about his country’s role in the new regional order. On Oct. 19 he declared that Turkey would not become the guardian of the Sykes-Picot borders. Ankara is certain that the situation that prevailed before the war against IS and thecoalition airstrikes has been superseded. It is therefore aiming to secure some gains before shooting a bullet. It knows well that what applies today — when the coalition needs to make use of its borders and position — will not apply after the coalition prevails (should that become a reality).

The removal of Assad is Turkey’s first priority. This need not be achieved directly, but Ankara believes it should be acknowledged as a necessity in solving the Syrian crisis. Full control by Turkey’s allies over northern Syria, from the border with Iraq to the Mediterranean, would ease Ankara’s concerns over the possible establishment of a Kurdish state on its border, in addition to being an essential element in defeating Assad’s regime and hastening its fall. Northern Syria would become a safe haven for the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition to establish their control and expand under coalition airstrikes. Therein lies Turkey’s problem with Iran.

The Iranians want to rid the region of IS at any cost. Although it is true that they refuse to support or bless the US-led coalition and have criticized its effectiveness, they know that the strikes are succeeding in keeping IS somewhat in check. They are also thinking of their post-Sykes-Picot status, or at least about keeping the sick man alive to the extent possible to prevent losing too much of the ground they have gained during the last decade.

To Iran, the fall of Assad would mean the loss of Syria as a whole and the isolation of Hezbollah within the borders of Lebanon. It would also mean that Iranian-influenced Iraq, where most Sunni and Kurdish regions are outside the government’s control, would be under threat. In such a scenario, Iran’s influence in the Levant would be severely scaled back. This possibility has pushed Iran toward ditching its usual “policy of ambiguity” concerning its presence on the ground in the region. Today, images and statements touting itsmilitary role in Iraq have became common, even exaggerated, sending a clear signal that it has boots on the ground and that it is ready to do whatever necessary to achieve its objectives.

The clash between Iran and Turkey is likely to intensify, but only in regard to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. These descendants of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires will always keep their differences away from their borders and mutual interests. Thus, it is unlikely that Turkish-Iranian economic relations will suffer. Business should proceed as usual.

Source: Al-Monitor

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