Annika Rothstein spends Iranian election day at Yosuf Abad synagogue in Tehran with Dr Siamak More Sedegh – the regime’s symbolic Jewish politician
Last week, Iranians set out to vote in the national election, choosing the 10th Islamic Consultative Assembly (otherwise known as the Majlis) as well as the Assembly of Experts. While the former has been getting a lot of attention, particularly since it is the first post-deal parliamentary election, the latter should not be overlooked, as it was poised for a possible historical shift.
The Assembly of Experts consists of 82 Islamic jurists who are elected every eight years in a general ballot.
The Assembly of Experts is, as well as the entire political system in the Islamic Republic or Iran, based on the political theory of Guardianship of the Jurist (otherwise known as the Velayat-e Faghih), which states that before the arrival of the prophesied twelfth imam of Shi’a Islam (the “Mahdi”), an elected clergy is responsible for providing guidance and leadership to the people.
- LISTEN Annika Rothstein speak with Jewish News on this week’s episode of the Jewish Views podcast on the Jews of Tehran!
The prophecy of the Mahdi is central in understanding he political climate in the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it partially explains the central powers and the people’s adherence to them.
A majority of Shiite Muslims believes that the 12th Imam was born in 868 AD and was then placed by God into hiding, to return on the Day of Judgment to administer the ultimate justice.
The name The 12th Imam refers to him being the 12th in the line of Imams who are direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that he vehemently believes in the existence of the Mahdi, and that the return of the Messianic figure is near.
This is the belief system that governs the Iranian political system and it results in an interesting dilemma. As a placeholder for the coming Messiah, should the Supreme leader be seen as “political divinity” rather than an elected leader– making any and all decisions deriving from his power undeniable and undisputable – or should the elected officials, him included, be privy to human scrutiny and rationale?
That very dilemma is at the heart of the election before us and also helps explain why those eventually elected for the Assembly of Experts will have an instrumental role in shaping the future of Iran.
A large majority of the Assembly of Experts’ current 88 Islamic jurists are principalists, a conservative group that sees the Supreme leader’s power as absolute and acts in full support of his leadership.
This means that while it is one of the most powerful institutions in Iranian politics, at least in theory, as it holds the power to select a supreme leader or a supreme leadership council as well as to reform or remove them as they see fit, the Assembly has almost never exercised its significant power
The one notable exception to this was their decision to remove deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Montazeri in 1988 after a disagreement with Ayatollah Khomeini over the latter’s decision to perform a mass execution of thousands of political prisoners, but this unusual course of action should be seen as a pledge of allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini, a leader the Assembly had of course selected, rather than an expression of independence.
The passive role of the Assembly of Experts has resulted in the already vast powers of the Supreme leadership growing to one without visible limitations.
Today, the Supreme leader appoints the heads of Iran’s judiciary, he controls the media, runs the security forces and perhaps most importantly, he appoints the Guardian Council.
The Guardian Council is a government body responsible for ensuring government compliance with Islamic law and that can basically overrule any decisions made by another government agency or branch, including laws passed in the Majlis, through an immediate executive order, no matter how big or small that decision may be.
The political and religious scheme of Iran, with the Supreme Leader at the top of the pyramid, can be interrupted and altered by an active Assembly of Experts, something that the moderate forces of Iranian politics know and are attempting to use.
The one major flaw in this plan is, however, that the formerly mentioned Council of Guardians is also responsible for vetting all candidates for the national election, and only 166 out of 801 candidates for the Assembly of Expert’s 88 seats have been approved to run and only 32 of those are Reformists.
Parallel to this historic election, another ballot is being cast – that of the Jewish community in electing its one representative in the Iranian Parliament.
For the past decade Dr. Moreh Sedegh has held that spot, quite successfully, but this year the race has heated up, seeing Jewish Committee President Dr. Sameyakh challenge the charismatic parliamentarian’s reign. Dr. Sameyakh is closely connected to the very religious Jewish community of Tehran, whereas Dr. Moreh Sedegh is a secular surgeon who while deeply traditional does not frequent any of the city’s many synagogues other than when it is nearing election time.
The election of the Jewish MP is in all relevant ways an internal affair, as non-Jews are not allowed to vote for the Jewish candidate and the issues debated have very little impact on the majority Muslim society. Only Jews receive Dr. Moreh Sedegh on their ballot and if non-Jews are caught attempting to vote for him they would be subjected to accusations of fraud.
Jews are recognised by their names and they are known by the people at the polling stations specifically for Jews, so this is by any means a closed-off affair. Even though the Jews of Iran are a recognised minority according to the constitution of the Islamic republic of Iran, along with Zoroastrians and Christians, the policy is one of separate but equal and that policy is directly reflected in the electoral process.
I spent Election Day at the Yosuf Abad synagogue in North Tehran, the beautiful century-old synagogue now serving as a polling station.
The place is busy, about 50 people lined up with their birth certificates in hand in order to receive their voting cards, but few of those I speak to feel the urgency of the day.
“Look, we have to vote in order to get our papers stamped. Many employers look for that stamp, and so does the government whenever we deal with it. If you don’t have a stamp you are branded as disloyal, and no-one wants that – I promise the man I speak to not to divulge his name in exchange for his honesty, and my vow seems to loosen his tongue.
“What we say in the election doesn’t matter, not really, but we want to show that we are nationalist, as Jews in this country. Do you know that when the government offered to exempt Jews from military service the community protested and won? We won the right to die for this country. We show loyalty. Loyalty is important in Iran”.
And if there is something the election’s frontrunner understands, it is loyalty. Dr Siamak More Sedegh has made a name for himself as a frequent guest of the regime, accompanying Ahmadinejad to the UN and other international summits in order to represent the Islamic Republic’s minority policies.
When appearing in international news he blasts Israel and its foreign policy while touting Iran as a country “free of anti-Semitism”, calling the scourge of Jew-hatred a purely European affair. T
his has resulted in Dr Sedegh forming a smooth working relationship with the regime, and perhaps the relative safety that relationships brings is the reason Dr Sedegh boasts of a decisive win when I meet him, a full day before the results of the vote had been counted. [He received 2,449 votes from the Jewish population of 10,000].
When I ask him to what he attributes his popularity, he says that he understands the importance of separating the Jews of Iran with Israel, avoiding what he calls “unnecessary confusion”.
For the Jews of Iran, there is little of that confusion, but the reality of life under the Islamic Republic is crystal clear.
Often touted as an exemplary proof of inclusion and religious freedom they understand the need to play along to get along and as my new friend told me, going as far as demanding to serve the nation they inhabit with blood and honour.
Most of the people at the Yosuf Abad polling station say they are voting for Dr Moreh Sedegh, but when I ask them why few have a definitive answer. It seems that this is not a vote as much as it is going through the motions, a pledge of allegiance rather than a poll.
Ayatollah Khomeini is currently 76 years old and in poor health and it is unlikely he will see the next election, making the plays of power all the more palpable.
Rafsjani has publicly opened up the possibility of the Assembly choosing a “leadership council” instead of an Ayatollah, and statements like these can explain why this election saw a record voter turnout.
The people who saw the Green Movement be shut down are now hoping for a slow moderate shift to openness and reform, and this time they took to the polls rather than the street to voice their wishes.
As for the Jews in Iran, they will continue to live alongside their Muslim neighbours, but the changes now made through popular vote will do very little to influence their lives or changes the status quo.
Dr Moreh Sedegh ended up being re-elected by a landslide, and most likely he will continue his message of loyalty and faith over peoplehood and land, keeping his brethren safe yet and hidden in plane sight. For better or worse, the Iranian Jews are part of a bubble, once removed from a system built on a set of beliefs they do not hold.
The Messianic nature of the Iranian political system may involve them in the end of days, but until then they keep their head down, hoping the bubble won’t pop.