Ayatollah Hopefuls: They're Counting On Your Support

Democracy Meets Theocracy; Clerics Take a Truth Test, Then Go Press the Flesh

TEHRAN, Iran -- Mahmood Reza Akbari is working the phones in the ramshackle campaign headquarters for a stable of candidates he manages. One of his clients, a cleric, is scheduled to give a 15-minute interview at the state-run television studio. Mr. Akbari is worried.

"The problem is getting them from the mosque to the studio," says Mr. Akbari, his brow furrowing as he considers Tehran's snarled midday traffic. "This is a big city, and they have to travel a lot, but air time is crucial."

From ayatollahs on down to junior clerics, Tehran's religious elite is hard on the campaign trail. Tomorrow, voters will choose among candidates vying for seats on the country's 86-member Assembly of Experts. The assembly then chooses, oversees (and can remove) Iran's supreme leader, an entity who has final say on all state matters and outranks the country's elected president.

Mr. Akbari is Iran's version of a tough-talking political operative, using the universal tools of electioneering to sell a moderate platform to the Iranian public.

The mere fact that Mr. Akbari's services are in hot demand shows how muddy the line between theocracy and democracy is growing here. Iran is shifting slowly from rigid fundamentalism to a limited yet freer, and rowdier, brand of popular sovereignty. Since the election last year of a relative progressive, Mohammad Khatami, as president, Iran's press has become openly critical of the government, calling for greater participation by lay persons and women. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators rallied in a Tehran park to protest against the shortage of moderate candidates in the race. The election is a popular vote, with 38 million eligible voters in Iran.

Compare this to the last Experts election, eight years ago, a plebiscite that passed almost unnoticed. "You had no debate," says a Western ambassador in Tehran, before noting how things have changed. "This is all part of an ongoing secular trend."

But don't expect any landslides. The religious conservatives aren't going anywhere, and they are clear favorites to dominate the Experts election.

For one thing, Iran is run by a parliamentary system grafted onto, and largely overshadowed by, a medieval caliphate that regards itself as God's agent on Earth. Even "moderate" clerics don't advocate full-blown, Western-style democracy. Censorship is still common. Late last month, the government shut down Iran's most liberal daily newspaper.

Beyond that, the conservatives have grading power. To run for Expert, hopefuls have to first take a test on difficult points of Islamic law. The tests are then graded by the country's conservative Council of Guardians, 12 clerics appointed by the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the end, to contest the 86 Experts slots up for grabs, the Guardians gave passing grades to 186 candidates, about 130 of whom are considered conservative, according to one moderate candidate.

The aspiring Experts, several hundred in all, were tested simultaneously in a huge lecture hall last month at the national seminary in Qom, not far from Tehran. The test was in Arabic, the sacred language of Islam. Proctors spaced the clerics a few feet apart, as proctors do at colleges around the world to keep the students honest.

One typical question: "If you detain a tailor without reason, then let him go, does he have the right to demand compensation?" There is no right answer, according to several candidates who took the test, only artful Socratic dialogue. "I would write such questions as, `Was the tailor held during working hours?' or `Did he work during his detention?"' says Mossum Gharavian, who proudly says he aced the exam. "It was a test of our understanding of Islamic jurisprudence."

Not that this nominating process absolves a candidate from answering the question that once stumped Ted Kennedy: Why are you running? The conservative Mr. Gharavian, a 39-year-old Qom professor, says he decided to run for Expert after twice consulting the Koran, which produced a positive response both times. Next question.

The 42-year-old Mr. Akbari -- who manages a slate of about a dozen moderates who survived the exam -- holds a more Western view. Though he is not, himself, a candidate, he got into politics to "represent the will of the people." Each morning, he huddles with his candidates and staff to sketch out a daily itinerary. Last-minute changes are common, depending on Tehran's horrid traffic. If one candidate is gridlocked in the morning, for example, another candidate from the moderate slate may sub for him in the afternoon.

"Our candidates tend to deliver the same message," Mr. Akbari says with the candor of a hardened political pro. "It makes it easier when rotating one in for the other."

The war room Mr. Akbari commands is covered with cheap Persian rugs and littered with empty tuna cans and plastic-foam dishes containing remnants of baghala polo, a traditional rice dish. Exposed light bulbs dangle from the ceiling. The few appliances that clutter the kitchen, including a Philco refrigerator, are older than most of the volunteers Mr. Akbari, a university researcher, recruited from local colleges.

Here, like everywhere, politics draws the earnest and oh-so-young. Ali Reza Ershadin, a 23-year-old industrial engineering major, says he and his fellow staff members put in 12- to 15-hour days running errands, taking phone messages and putting up posters. "This is a struggle for the soul of Iran, between the progressives and conservatives," he says fervently.

Candidate appearances are usually held at neighborhood mosques, which double as civic centers and each night guarantee a wholesale crowd of several hundred potential voters. But booking a mosque isn't quite like reserving the local American Legion hall. Groups jockey for space, and scheduling is tight. The conservative Expert candidate, Mr. Ghavarian, was to speak at a mosque recently in the conservative stronghold of downtown Tehran -- a choice booking -- but was bumped by another group: the neighborhood militia.

For some scheduling muscle, Mr. Akbari relies on Seyed Alireza Hashemi Sanij, his 35-year-old advance man. The burly Mr. Sanij spends most of his time networking with the imams who run mosques to reserve half-hour speaking slots for Mr. Akbari's slate of candidates.

"I have friends in high places," says Mr. Sanij, a veteran of several parliamentary elections who last year worked as a bodyguard for Mr. Khatami during the presidential campaign. "I can make things happen."

And they do happen on a recent Sunday night, when candidate and cleric Majid Ansari -- one of Mr. Akbari's key candidates -- addresses about 500 people at the Arque Square mosque near Tehran's huge bazaar. "The power vested in the leader of this country," Mr. Ansari declares, echoing the populist line of President Khatami, "is equal to the power that the people give him with their votes."

Afterward, back at the war room, Mr. Ansari relaxes with his campaign staff over tiny glasses of tea. A visitor asks him how he reconciles the apparent contradiction between theocratic Iran and its increasingly populist electorate. On this point of Iranian civics, the moderate Mr. Ansari threads the needle.

"We do not separate religion and politics," he says. "Therefore, there is no contradiction."