A reformist in conservative clothing?

If hard-liners are routed in today's elections, will 'God's deputy on earth' lose his title?

Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, is often dismissed by Western observers as an unrepentant archconservative. He is portrayed as shoring up the leaking ship of the 21-year-old Islamic Revolution at any cost, while blocking liberal reforms.

But others in Iran depict a leader who oscillates between the competing reform and hard-line camps, to strike a balance to propel Iran into the 21st century with its Islamic nature intact.

"When his own reputation is on the line, he comes down on the side of the reformers, to keep some credibility with the people," says an Asian diplomat in Tehran. "But when he expects a right-wing backlash, he backs down."

In Iran's charged political atmosphere - Iranians begin a crucial parliamentary vote today that is likely to tip the balance of power against hard-liners - every move of the powerful cleric is scrutinized all the more closely.

The way a recent crisis was defused by Mr. Khamenei - whose official title means "God's Deputy on Earth" to Iran's Shiite Muslims - provides a rare glimpse into the enigmatic nature of the man at the heart of Iran's Islamic regime.

A leading theologian claimed that a former head of the CIA had visited Iran "with a suitcase full of money," to pay reformist journalists for criticizing the regime.

Two cartoons appeared in reformist newspapers lampooning the cleric, prompting a three-day sit-in by theology students at the Azam mosque in Qom, the stronghold of conservative clerics. They demanded the resignation of the information minister - appointed by the reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami - for permitting "insults to Islam."

The mosque rang with the cry: "Death to the mercenary pen pushers!"

Critical as the gray-bearded, bespectacled Khamenei has been of the reform movement in the past - declaring in December that "those in charge of it inside the country are enemies" - he sent an envoy to Qom with a different message.

"The supreme leader says: 'For the time being this is enough,' " the envoy said. The protesters went home - but it was a risky move for Khamenei.

That's because in Iran's complex political arena, there is no "government" per se, but shifting centers of power that vie for influence - of which Khamenei is but one.

Mr. Khatami, also a cleric who promised a softer form of Islamic rule, was elected president in 1997 with 70 percent of the vote. His popular message is likely to be bolstered under the new parliament.

But there are also powerful conservative forces that lay claim to the roots of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and reject what they see as the corrupting influence of open, Western society. Their model was the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader for a decade who created the position of the infallible Velayat-e-faqih - God's deputy on earth.

Normally the highest ranking theologian in the country would assume the position, but Khamenei was appointed to it - chosen despite the fact that a dozen other clerics outranked him.

But even today, the 83-member Assembly of Religious Experts can vote Khamenei out of power - making him beholden in many ways to their wishes.

"No one ... dared to question Khomeini's authority out of belief, sympathy, or fear," says a government official who asked not to be named. "But now people are questioning it because Khamenei doesn't have the same authority. He can't ignore the grand ayatollahs. And if he loses the confidence of the religious hierarchy, things could be a lot worse."

No one doubts Khamenei's revolutionary credentials. He was a favorite pupil of Khomeini from the early 1960s and spent three years in prisons or exile during the reign of the pro-West Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi.

His behind-the-scenes role in organizing Iran's military during the early days of the Iran-Iraq war resulted in an assassination attempt in 1981. An exploding tape recorder left him wounded in the upper body, weakening his powerful voice and his right hand - and bringing an end his guitar-playing.

But Khamenei's political views have been hard to pin down, and seem to often turn with the political wind. Interviewed in 1981 on the Iraq front line, wearing a pistol and military fatigues, he rejected Iraq's calls for a cease-fire and said the conflict was part of a wider jihad aimed at "building the godly structure here on earth."

Toward the end of the war, nearly a decade later, however, Western intelligence agencies reported that Khamenei was against Khomeini's tough line.

During two terms as president in the 1980s, he was deemed to be a "pragmatist," favored renewing ties with the West, including the United States. But he also ruled out any talks with the US in 1989, saying on Tehran Radio: "Next to the usurper regime ruling over occupied Palestine [Israel], you are the most cursed government in the eyes of the Iranian people."

Called then the "poet president" for his passion for literature, some say he has in the past smoked opium - a long-standing Persian pastime. When it was fashionable, he wore his shirt collar in the manner of those called the "chic sheikhs."

"When he became leader, he shifted," says the government official. "Critics say he could have more aggressively supported Khatami's reforms, but is he the obstacle to reform? No."

Some Iranians suggest Khamenei's balancing act is a function of a "genius" political mind, and that behind the scenes he is Iran's version of Mikhail Gorbachev - a comparison that is most often made with Khatami.

Though the depth of Khatami's victory shocked all factions, they note, the president never would have been allowed to run for office, or call for a "dialogue between civilizations" that included the US, or launch his reform agenda without the leader's express approval.

At critical moments, too - most notably during rioting in 1998 over the arrest of Tehran's popular mayor, and last July during student riots over police abuse and press freedom - Khamenei intervened on the side of reformists, as he did recently in the CIA money case.

But finding a workable balance may be his top priority. "His political priorities have been the same since Khatami was elected: to cooperate with Khatami and keep reforms as slow as possible - to rein in Khatami," says a senior Western diplomat. "He wants to help reforms enough so that the revolutionary political structure is not damaged," adds the diplomat. "Khamenei's game is to preserve the Islamic Republic, but not open its foundations to attack."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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