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by Amir Taheri
Arab News
November 9, 2004

JEDDAH, 9 November 2004 — The turban or the hat? This is the question that Iran's leaders face as they prepare for the presidential election next year.

An Interior Ministry communiqué in Tehran said yesterday that the election will be held on May 13, 2005, signaling the start of a long campaign.

The turban or the hat question is not fanciful.

The turban represents the Shiite clergy that, ever since its creation in Iran almost four centuries ago, has had an ambivalent attitude toward the exercise of political power. The hat is the symbol of Iran's Westernized elites that started securing a power base in the middle of he 19th century and ended up by dominating the government from the first decade of the 20th century until the mullas seized power in 1979.

During the 1978-79 revolution the people of the hat, known as the "mukalla" cooperated with the people of the turban, known as the "muam'am", to drive out the Shah and grab power for themselves.

The arrangement worked for a while as the people of the turban allowed the people of the hat to fill major positions of power, including those of the president of the Islamic republic and the premiership. The people of the turban stayed in the shadows or, at most, assigned middling positions in government. Gradually, they realized that running a government is no big deal. Famously, Khomeini declared that even a donkey could be a minister, prime minister or president of the republic, provided its loyalty to the revolution was not in doubt.

Within a year the people of the turban, who had tasted power and liked it, decided to reverse the arrangement to have all the big jobs, leaving the crumbs for the people of the hat.

For years now the people of the turban have held key positions such as president of the republic, chief justice, minister of security and intelligence, minister of the interior, speaker of the Islamic Majlis (Parliament), minister of justice, and minister of culture and guidance.

At the same time the "muam'am" also head other key institutions such as the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, The Discernment Council, the Assembly of Experts, the High Council of National Defense, and many others.

Turbaned heads are also present in every government department at national and provincial levels. In the provinces turbaned heads act as a counter-force to the hat-wearing governors appointed from Tehran.

Last but not least, the position of the "Supreme Guide" or Faqih Al-Wali (the Theologian Jurisconsult) is reserved for a turbaned head, although, theoretically at least, a hat-wearer could also fill it.

So, why is the turban-or-hat debate revived at this point?

There are at least three reasons.

The first is that the ruling mullas hate being called "mullas", a term that reminds the rest of the world of the Afghan Taleban and Mulla Muhammad Omar. Iran's ruling mullas prefer to be seen as Third World revolutionaries, fighting imperialism, and, one day hopefully, wiping Israel off the map, rather than forcing women into burqa or measuring the length of men's beards as did the Taleban.

Many within the ruling establishment believe that it is time to allow a hat-wearer to act as president of the republic, thus helping change the image of the regime as one dominated by the mullas. In any case, under the Khomeinist constitution, the president of the republic holds virtually no power of his own, and could be dismissed by the "Supreme Guide" who is the real head of state with powers that no other ruler has anywhere in the world.

In fact, the president of the Islamic Republic is a sort of prime minister who is directly elected by the people but can exercise no power without the permission of other mulla-dominated institutions. Thus changing the regime's image by electing a hat-wearer, as president would in no way undermine the real hold that the revolutionary mullas have on power.

The second reason for the debate to come up at this time is that many Shiite clerics are seriously concerned about the negative impact of clerical rule on Iranians' view of Shiism, indeed of Islam itself. Their argument is that people may project any anger generated by political or economic failures onto religion. A hat-wearing president could act as a kind of human shield, taking the flak for the government's failure.

The third, and perhaps the most important, reason is that a strong segment of the revolutionary establishment consists of hat-wearers who are beginning to feel frustrated at the prospect of never getting any of the big jobs.

These are people who joined the revolution in their teens, took the American diplomats hostage, manned the firing squads against the enemies of the revolution, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war. Many of them have improved their credentials by marrying into clerical families. And, yet, because they are not mullas, have no hope of reaching the highest rungs of the ladder.

The establishment is clearly divided as to whether to stay with the turban or try the hat next time round.

The incumbent President Muhammad Khatami is out of the race because he is not allowed to stand for a third consecutive term. In any case, having disappointed the reformist movement while antagonizing the hard-liners, he has virtually no support base. Attempts by some of Khatami's friends to persuade Mahdi Karrubi, a mid-ranking mulla, to stand fizzled out last month when he announced he didn't want the job.

The party of the turban has two leading candidates.

One is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mulla-cum-businessman who served as president for two terms between 1989 and 1997. Many regard Rafsanjani, aged 71, as the regime's real "strongman". And, thanks to his immense personal fortune and vast network of business associates, he certainly has a power base.

Rafsanjani, however, has two problems. The first is that he is, perhaps, the most unpopular figure within the establishment. His unpopularity was such that he failed to secure a seat in the Majlis elections just two years ago. This may or may not be just, but even committed Khomeinists admit that the return of Rafsanjani to the presidency would do more harm than good.

Rafsanjani's second problem is even bigger. The "Supreme Guide" Ali Husseini Khamenei is almost certainly opposed to Rafsanjani's return to the presidency. The two men have been friends for 30 years, and it is quite possible that Khamenei owes his present position to Rafsanjani's clever and speedy maneuvering on his behalf in 1989 in the wake of Khomeini's death. What is certain is that if Rafsanjani returns as president his stature, clout and personal network could diminish the dominant position that Khamenei has won for himself in the past eight years.

The second mulla who has already thrown his turban into the ring is 63-year-old Hassan Rouhani, a mid-ranking cleric who has impressed the European governments by his negotiating skills during the tortuous talks concerning Iran's alleged nuclear weapons' program. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has described Rouhani as "a capable diplomat, and a man we could do business with."

For the past decade Rouhani has been secretary-general of the all-powerful High Council of National Defense and thus close to the military and intelligence services. If the mullas wish to keep a tight control on all aspects of Iran's nuclear program, Rouhani should be their man.

According to the buzz in Tehran circles, Khamenei is tilting toward the hat solution. Having a hat as president would represent no threat to his clerical status within the regime. At the same time it would present a better image of the Islamic Republic abroad while throwing a sop at Iran's sulking middle classes who feel shut out of power.

Again according to unverifiable reports, Khamenei would like the post to go to Ali-Akbar Velayati, his current adviser on foreign policy. Velayati, who served as foreign minister for almost 17 years, is deeply loyal to the " Supreme Guide". At the same time because he has no power base of his own he is unlikely to cast a shadow on Khamenei's authority.

Nevertheless, Velayati, aged 65, has one problem: He is the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by a Berlin Criminal Court on suspicion of involvement in murdering four Iranian Kurdish dissidents there in 1992. Another hat that maybe thrown into the ring, if Velayati's is discarded, belongs to Ali Larijani, the former head of the state-owned radio and television network and the establishment's chief propagandist for more than 10 years.

Khamenei may well decide to let the powerful bazaar have the presidency this time. In that case, Habib-Allah Asgar Owladi-Mussulman may emerge as a hat-wearing candidate. Owladi-Mussulman, aged 70, is a key figure in the so-called Islamic Coalition of some 70 Khomeinist groups with large business and political networks.

The pro-reform coalition that swept Khatami into the presidency almost eight years ago has all but evaporated. Attempts at encouraging former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenei to stand as a hat-wearing candidate collapsed two months ago when he made it clear he would not seek any office as long as the present constitution remained in force.

There was then some talk of Khatami's younger brother, Muhammad-Reza, to become a candidate. But that did not get anywhere when the Council of Guardians made it clear that his candidacy would be vetoed.

Currently, the remnants of the Khatamist movement are pinning their hopes on Mostafa Moin, a lackluster former minister of education with no base and even less name recognition.

Hat or turban, one thing is certain: Whoever wins the presidency next year will be firmly in the camp of the hard-liners. The Islamic Republic has decided that this is not the time for playing with political reform, and that the Chinese model of economic opening and strict political control is the best, at least for the foreseeable future.


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