By Michael Theodoulou
The National [United Arab Emirates]
August 23, 2009
The diminutive and bespectacled septuagenarian is little known in the West, which he holds in contempt, but Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi wields considerable behind-the-scenes influence in Iran.
Nicknamed “Professor Crocodile” by his detractors, the ultra-conservative theologian is the spiritual mentor of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his followers have great sway in the Revolutionary Guards and its paramilitary arm, the Basij militia. Those forces together spearheaded the violent crackdown on the huge street protests in the wake of June’s disputed elections.
He argued inventively, if speciously, last week that “obeying the president is like obeying God” because the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Rumoured to have ambitions to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi is an aggressive defender of the supreme leader’s absolute power.
He runs the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute and two other educational institutions in the holy shrine city of Qom. All are offshoots of the Haqqani seminary, one of Qom’s most prestigious theological schools, which teaches that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The Ahmadinejad government has endowed the seminary with generous subsidies.
Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi’s influence goes beyond the security forces: his supporters also occupy sensitive posts in the intelligence ministry and judiciary. “He has trained a lot of people in theological schools who have been absorbed into the system, which gives him a lot of influence within the system – although not outside it,” said an Iran scholar and former seminary student who requested anonymity. “He’s very hardline, very learned, but politically naïve.”
Although clerics are supposed to remain impartial during elections, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi publicly supported Mr Ahmadinejad’s candidacy for the 2005 presidential race. Once his choice was installed in the presidency, the ayatollah declared that Iran now had its first genuine Islamic government and there was no need for more elections.
Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi views elections as a politically expedient concession that was made to secular and liberal forces at the beginning of the revolution and which is now anachronistic. He argues that an Islamic government derives its authority from God, not the people. For him, even the name of the country – “The Islamic Republic of Iran” – is a contradiction in terms: he would prefer to call it simply “The Islamic State of Iran”, analysts say.
He was quoted as saying in the daily Aftab-e-Yazd in 2002: “Who are the majority of people who vote: a bunch of hooligans who drink vodka and are paid to vote. Whatever they say cannot become the law of the country and Islam.” The cleric is known for his sensationalist sound bites. Championing his fundamentalist views, he once told Friday prayer worshippers: “If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, sock him in the mouth.”
He was immensely relieved to see the back of Mr Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who had tried to liberalise Iran’s Islamic system and mend fences with the West. The ayatollah’s outbursts during Mr Khatami’s troubled eight-year tenure (1997 to 2005) first brought him to the attention of the wider Iranian public and made him a bête noire of the reformist movement.
“Democracy means if the people want something that is against God’s will, then they should forget about God and religion,” he proclaimed in 1998. “Be careful not to be deceived. Accepting Islam is not compatible with democracy.”
A year later he became embroiled in an unprecedented debate over the role of violence in upholding religious and revolutionary values. The debate was provoked by a bloody raid by hardline Islamic vigilantes on a dormitory at Tehran University where students were holding a small, peaceful demonstration against press curbs.
Moderates called for vigilante pressure groups – popularly known as Hezbollahis – to be reined in, and accused hardline clerics such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi of providing them with religious sanction. He had robustly defended the role of violence under Islam.
“For example, you are in a remote village and someone curses the Prophet and God,” he told Friday prayer worshippers. “Since there are no police there, the people should take matters into their own hands and take care of that person.” Weeks later, he reiterated his stance more bluntly: “Islam allows any Muslim who witnesses a person insulting Islamic sanctities to spill his blood. This is an Islamic decree, and there is no need for a court.”
The fundamentalist ayatollah earned his unflattering sobriquet, “Professor Crocodile”, nine years ago when a famous cartoonist was thrown in jail for lampooning him as a crocodile throttling a journalist with his tail while shedding false tears over a western cultural invasion. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, an acerbic critic of the reformist press, had been quoted as saying that a former CIA chief had travelled to Tehran with a suitcase stuffed with dollars to bribe Iranian journalists and other “cultural agents”.
The cartoonist did not identify the ayatollah by name and at the time insisted his drawing was not aimed at any particular person. But readers knew precisely whom he meant, and not only because the Farsi word for crocodile, temsah, rhymes with Mesbah.
The ayatollah’s critics point out that while many founders of the Islamic Revolution spent years in the Shah’s jails during the 1960s and 1970s for their political activism, he did not struggle against the US-backed monarch’s regime. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi’s supporters counter that, rather than fighting the Shah’s rule, he chose to enlighten Iranian youths with books from his “In the Right Path” publishing house. It was only after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that he became prominent among hardliners as one of their most articulate and extreme ideologues.
He suffered a serious setback in the December 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts, Iran’s top clerical panel, which is empowered to appoint the next supreme leader. While Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi won a seat, he was trounced in the vote by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic former president who is one of the current president’s most bitter rivals. Mr Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts and is said to command the loyalty of a third of its members, while a quarter supports Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
Hujjat al-Islam 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mid-level religious scholar and former two-term president of Iran, is a pragmatic politician who straddles the line between the pro-regime conservative stalwarts and the diverse "Reformist" camp.
That setback may have dented the ayatollah’s supposed ambitions to become supreme leader. But despite his influence any such hopes are anyway unrealistic: ultimately he is too extreme even for fellow hardliners, analysts say. Concerned that their turn will be next if the reformist camp is crushed, influential moderate conservatives are already coming to the defence of Mir Hossein Mousavi and his allies. Mr Mousavi is Iran’s former prime minister whom millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of the June elections.“Hardliners like to hear what Mesbah-Yazdi says,” said the Iran scholar and former seminary student. “But they know Iran would become an unsustainable dictatorship if they go the way he wants.”