Iran in the Spotlight with Religious Leader Elections

Major developments in Iran are drawing global attention. Elections for the panel that chooses Iran's supreme religious leader will be held next month, and the outcome could profoundly affect Iran's foreign and domestic policy. Madeleine Brand looks ahead to this and other developments in Iran with NPR senior diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca. In a few minutes, one of Chicago's oldest boxing gyms, known for delivering second chances, gets its final notice.

BRAND: But first, NPR's Mike Shuster is here in the studio and we've asked him to spend a few minutes with us because he's traveling to Iran this weekend.

MIKE SHUSTER: Yes.

BRAND: Now, you've been to Iran some, what, half a dozen times over the last three years?

SHUSTER: Yes. Seven times over the last three years.

BRAND: But I sense that you're pretty excited about this visit.

SHUSTER: You do?

BRAND: Yes. I feel it.

SHUSTER: Ah. I think it's an especially good time to be going to Iran. I mean not only is there a lot of tension between the United States and Iran - over Iraq, over the nuclear issue, over the broader set of concerns that the United States and Iran have about each other - but there's an unusual election that's taking place on December 15th that makes it an important news event that might cast an interesting light on what's going on domestically and internally in Iran.

BRAND: Now, this election is for a group called the Assembly of Experts.

SHUSTER: Yes. It's for an institution, a constitutional institution of Iran, and the governance of Iran, called the Assembly of Experts. It's an election that only happens every eight years. The Assembly of Experts has 86 people in it, mostly clerics, but some non-clerics as well. And it's this body that chooses the supreme religious leader of Iran. And so this body has a very important role to play at times in Iran's constitutional, political and religious life.

Now, there have only been two supreme religious leaders since the Islamic revolution in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, and then his successor in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is still the supreme religious leader. My sense of Ali Khamenei is that he's been a concensus builder since he's been supreme religious leader, and now we're talking nearly two decades.

What's interesting is that there are those analysts who are watching from outside and inside Iran who think that there could become a more intense power struggle for power in Iran between the hardline right-wingers that have consolidated themselves around President Ahmadinejad, who has been in office for about a year and a half, and what they call more traditionalists or conservatives, but not radical conservatives, around the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

And there's no precedent for this; that is, the Assembly of Experts constitutionally can choose a supreme religious leader and choose to remove him. This is never been done in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it's not out of the realm of constitutional possibility. And there are some who think that there maybe some hardline on the right who want to do that.

BRAND: Well, how much power does he wield compared to Ahmadinejad, the president?

SHUSTER: He wields far more power than Ahmadinejad. Although he is far less known internationally, and even less known domestically. He works more quietly as a political leader, but he holds much more power. And part of the potential struggle around the Assembly of Experts is that Ahmadinejad and the much more hardline clerics that support him want more power. They want more power for the president, because they're not satisfied with Ali Khamenei's more traditionalist and more careful pragmatic decisions.

BRAND: And when it comes to negotiating with Iran, what is the United States to do? Negotiate officially with the president, and then unofficially with Khamenei?

SHUSTER: This is a very difficult problem to solve, because when the United States talks about engagement with Iran, it's not always entirely clear who to engage with. It would be normal to go to the president and the president's apparatus, the foreign ministry. But knowing that there are other centers of power, it poses in an especially difficult problem for the United States, to know who to talk to, and to feel confident that when things are agreed with that interlocutor, that that stands for the position of the Iranian government, because it doesn't always.

BRAND: And Mike, obviously you get a lot more information when you're on the ground in Iran. But what are the potential outcomes of the election?

SHUSTER: Well, I can think of two. If more pragmatic conservatives maintain control of the Assembly Of Experts, then it seems that Ali Khamenei's position is preserved. They delivered somewhat of a rebuff to the hard right wing, and it might mean greater concensus and perhaps the greater ability to respond to the United States, to take more moderate policies vis-à-vis Iraq, and maybe to go more carefully on the nuclear issue, which has been so controversial between Iran and the United States.

On the other hand, if the hardline right wing gains control of the Assembly of Experts, this will bolster Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs that back him, and then you could see in Iran maybe more defiant on the international stage, more confident of its more conservative positions and a more difficult nation to deal with.

BRAND: NPR's Mike Shuster, thank you.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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