Iranians Vote Friday for Assembly of Experts

Iranian voters go to the polls Friday in local elections. The ballots will include candidates for the Assembly of Experts, a group of clerics responsible for selecting Iran's next supreme leader.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Elections are being held in Iran tomorrow, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad facing the first test of his popularity since he came to power last year. Iran's voters are to choose city councils across the country and the Assembly of Experts, an elite group of Shiite Muslim clerics.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.

(Soundbite of singing)

MIKE SHUSTER: Young cadets of Iran's Visichi(ph) local neighborhood militia sing of their love for Iran, land of martyrdom. This is a rally in Tehran organized by the political party that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has created. Ahmadinejad has been in office for less than a year and a half, and during that time he has sought to consolidate his rather fragile power inside Iran. So he has put forth a slate of candidates he hopes will dominate both the Assembly of Experts and the local city councils. Eighty-six members of the Shiite clergy sit on the assembly, and their primary task is to choose Iran's supreme religious leader. Many analysts here, among them Sayeed Leylahs(ph), believe Ahmadinejad is seeking to gain control of the Assembly.

Mr. SAYEED LEYLAHS (Analyst): It seems that the radicals who support Mr. Ahmadinejad are trying to go to this council and make more pressure or influence over the supreme leader of the council. This is important and very sensitive because of this fact.

SHUSTER: The current supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, is viewed as more of a traditionalist conservative. Ahmadinejad is backed by an extreme hardline ayatollah in the assembly name Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi. Mesbah-Yazdi is known to despise elections and the elements of democratic practice that survive in Iran. Although he is president, Ahmadinejad's political powers still pale before those of the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad and his supporters hope to change that through the election of the Assembly of Experts, says Leylahs.

Mr. LEYLAHS: I believe they are eager to control all of the bases of the power inside the country.

SHUSTER: Public interest in the election for Assembly of Experts is low, so how well Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi will do depends on voter turnout. Conservative columnist Amir Mohebian does not believe there will be a significant power shift in the assembly.

Mr. AMIR MOHEBIAN (Columnist): We are a democratic system. Every idea who's supported by the people will be the winner. And actually, I think most of the people not support Mesbah-Yazdi before that.

SHUSTER: Nationwide, there are only 166 candidates for the Assembly of Experts. The candidates were approved by what is called the Guardian Council, whose members are selected by the supreme religious leader. So in a circular way, the supreme leader chooses those who potentially choose him. For this reason, democracy advocates like Ibrahim Yazdi reject taking part in this election.

Mr. IBRAHIM YAZDI (Iran Freedom Party): The election of the expert assembly for the leader will definitely deepen the political struggle within the ruling group. That does not have anything to do with the process of democracy in Iran. Therefore, we don't want to participate in that one.

SHUSTER: But for reformers, the local city council elections tomorrow are a different story. Several hundred people attended a reformist political meeting here in Tehran this week, opened traditionally with prayer.

(Soundbite of prayer)

SHUSTER: The reformers are running a single slate of candidates for Tehran's city council. President Ahmadinejad also is putting up a slate, but so are other conservative groups. So liberals like Ibrahim Yazdi, a former Iranian foreign minister, see an opportunity for reformers who have experienced setback after electoral setback over the past two years.

Mr. YAZDI: This is a very important part for the process of democracy in Iran. It is an exercise for democracy at the grassroot.

SHUSTER: The city councils have the power to choose the mayors of Iran's municipalities, and the mayor of Tehran can use that position to propel himself to national political prominence. That's precisely how Ahmadinejad vaulted to the presidency last year. So, says political science Professor Nasser Hadian, the municipal elections represent the possibility of a reformist resurgence.

Professor NASSER HADIAN (Tehran University): And in case these reformers can win this election in Tehran, that would send a shockwave throughout the society.

SHUSTER: It would be a clear signal, says Hadian, that Iran's people are not impressed with the combination of populism and piety that Ahmadinejad has made the mainstay of his administration.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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