While the world is focused on the clock of Iran's nuclear programme, the other clock, that of the nation's domestic politics, is all but ignored by most commentators.
Both clocks have their alarms set. That of the nuclear clock is expected to ring within the next three to five years, unless something is done to interrupt the military aspects of the programme. The alarm of the domestic politics clock, however, could be set off within the next few months as the power struggle in Tehran enters a new and more intense phase.
The event to watch is the forthcoming election of a new Assembly of Experts, a body of mullahs whose task is to elect the "Custodian-Theologian", more commonly known as the "Supreme Guide", who has virtually unlimited powers under the Khomeinist constitution.
The election, to be completed in April, will not be open to all citizens. As always in the case of elections in the Islamic Republic all candidates must be approved by the authorities. And once the results are in, the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a body of 12 mullahs, can cancel part or all of them. In other words these elections resemble primaries held inside the same political party.
The dominant group in the current Assembly of Experts consists of mullahs with business interests and old ties to the incumbent "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi and the former Presidents Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.
The interest of the coming election is whether or not there will be a change of majority in the assembly. Such a change would be the logical continuation of the presidential election which swept a new generation of radical revolutionaries to power under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And if change does happen there is no guarantee that the new ruling elite would not want one of its own to become "Supreme Guide"
The common assumption in Tehran is that Khamenehi, the current "Supreme Guide", will be confirmed in his position at least for the time being. But, when it comes to Iranian politics, common assumptions often prove wrong. In last summer's presidential election, for example, many had expected Rafsanjani to sweep to victory. The more knowledgeable had speculated that Mohsen Qalibaf, a retired police chief and the favoured candidate of Khamenehi, would win. As it turned out , Ahmadinejad won in a landslide.
During the presidential election Khamenehi was astute enough to adjust his tactics. Having backed Qalibaf in the first round he switched to Ahmadinejad in the second. Ahmadinejad, however, feels he owes nothing to Khamenehi. By putting the focus on the "Hidden Imam" Mahdi as the sole source of power in the Islamic Republic, Ahmadinejad has tried to marginalise the "Supreme Guide." In many of his speeches he puts the Mahdi ahead of all prophets and claims that he has " a private personal channel" to the "Hidden Imam."
Theoretically, only the most learned of the Shi'ite clerics are supposed to be considered for the position of "Supreme Guide". In practice, however, not a single senior ayatollah is showing any interest in the job. In fact the overwhelming majority of Shi'ite clerics in Iran now believe that their participation in government was a mistake, and that Khomeini had been more of an ambitious politician than a proper religious leader. Some senior mullahs want the post of the " Supreme Guide" abolished and its political responsibilities transferred to the President of the Republic. The religious aspects of the post would then become the responsibility of a five-man council of theologians.
Both Rafsanjani and Khatami had supported that formula, albeit indirectly. And some analysts believe that, had Rafsanjani won, he would have pressed fort the merger of the two top posts of the regime.
The new ruling elite, symbolised by Ahmadinejad, however, appears determined to maintain the post of "Supreme Guide" while divesting it of some of its political and administrative powers. In that context the new elite's ideological guru, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi could emerge as the leading candidate for "Supreme Guide", if and when Khamenehi is forced out.
The contrast between the two men could not be greater. While Khamenehi was unable to complete his theological studies before the revolution because of frequent spells in the Shah's prisons, Mesbah-Yazdi steered clear of politics and received on the most sophisticated education that the Shi'ite clergy could offer. Those who know him claim that he is one of the leading experts in Shi'ite philosophy. But they also insist that he is a hardliner on social and cultural issues and a feeling of profound contempt for the modern civilisation led by the Western democracies.
Because he didn't get a chance to train as a mullah, Khamenehi became a politician. After the revolution he first worked as an aide at Khomeini's office in charge of distributing cash to needy mullahs throughout the country. He then became head of he office for military procurement and , later, Deputy Defence Minister under the Lebanese-Iranian militant Mostafa Chamran. In 1989 he caused a surprise when the Assembly of Experts declared him to be "Interim Supreme Guide", days after Khomeini's death. The next assembly turned his "interim" position into a permanent one.
Mesbah-Yazdi, however, has virtually no political experience and, if elected " Supreme Guide", might be content with providing Ahmadinejad with clerical cover only and allowing him to run the political show.
Although Mesbah-Yazdi has shunned the limelight he has been at the centre of most debates within the Khomeinist establishment for the past six or seven years, arousing often violent passions both for and against. The reason is that he is totally against both "taqiyah" (obfuscation) and "kitman" (dissimulation) which have been perfected into veritable arts by the mullahs over the centuries. Thus he often says aloud what most mullahs think in silence.
A disciple of the late Iranian philosopher Ahamd Fardid, Mesbah-Yazdi is full of contradictions. On the one hand he talks of " the direct link between believers and the Hidden Imam". On the other he claims that most believers lack the wisdom to distinguish right from wrong, and thus need to be led and looked after like children. He speaks of his dream of a universal Islamic state which would lead the way out of the "deadly maze of greed and corruption created by the West". And yet he insists that non-Shi'ite Muslims are " deviants" and, as such, cannot participate in the conquest of the world for "true Islam."
Whatever its outcome the coming election could have a major impact on the course of Iranian politics over the next few years.
If the new radical elite do not win a majority, the old guard, led by Rafsanjani, could forge an alliance with Khamenehi and oust the new guard, led by Mesbah-Yazdi and Ahmadinejad out in the next parliamentary election in two years' time. If , on the other hand, the new guard captures control of the Assembly of Experts, it may well launch a major reform of the Islamic Republic's political structures with the aim of "full mobilisation for the coming clash of civilisations", as foreseen by Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi.
As for the nuclear clock neither the old nor the new guard wish to stop it. But it requires little imagination to see that a nuclear bomb in the hands of messianic luminaries like Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi would be more frightening than in the hands of mullahs like Rafsanjani and Khatami with business interests and contacts in the West.