November 20, 2006

Who is Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi?

An ultra-conservative Iranian cleric who opposes all dialogue with the West is a frontrunner to become the country's next supreme spiritual leader. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, 71, who publicly backs the use of suicide bombers against Israel, is campaigning to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini, 67, as the head of the Islamic state. Considered an extremist even by fellow mullahs, he was a fringe figure in Iran's theocracy until last year's election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fellow fundamentalist who views him as his ideological mentor.

Mesbah-Yazdi and his supporters will stand in elections next month for the Assembly of Experts, an 86-strong group of theologians responsible for nominating a replacement for Ayatollah Khamenei, who is rumored to be ailing. The Guardian Council, a hardline conservative body that vets candidates, is accused of vetoing reform-minded clerics and banning around half of nearly 500 applicants. Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said that having Mesbah-Yazdi "in power would lead to a much more hard-line puritanical rule in Iran."