by Amir Taheri
New York Post
December 27, 2004

Aghaye Taheri, dom-e khoroos ya ghasame roobaah… kodam ra ghabul konim…

December 27, 2004 -- THE turban or the hat? This is the question that Iran's leaders face as they pre pare for presidential election next spring.

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

During the 1978-79 revolution the people of the hat cooperated with the people of the turban to drive out the Shah.

The alliance worked for a while as the people of the turban allowed the people of the hat to fill major positions of power, including the president of the Islamic republic and the premiership. The people of the turban stayed in the shadows or were assigned middling positions in government. Gradually, they realized that running a government was no big deal. Within a year the people of the turban, who had tasted power and liked it, decided to cancel the arrangement and monopolize the big jobs.

For years the people of the turban have held top 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.

They control key institutions such as the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, the High Council of National Defence and many others.


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 (a hat-wearer could also fill it).

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

First, the ruling mullahs hate being called "mullahs," a term that reminds the rest of the world of the Taliban. Many believe that it is time to allow a hat-wearer to act as president of the republic, thus helping change the regime's image (incumbent President Muhammad Khatami is not allowed to stand for a third consecutive term).

In any case, under the Khomeinist constitution, the president of the republic holds little real power, 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. The president is a sort of prime minister who, though directly elected, cannot exercise power without the permission of other mullah-dominated institutions.

Second, many Shiite clerics are concerned about the negative impact of clerical rule on Iranians' view of Shiism, indeed of Islam: People may project anger generated by political or economic failures onto religion. A hat-wearing president could act as a human shield, taking the flak for the government's shortcomings.

Third, a strong segment of the revolutionary establishment consists of hat-wearers who 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 U.S. diplomats hostage, manned the firing squads against the enemies of the revolution and fought in the Iran-Iraq war. Many have improved their credentials by marrying into clerical families. Yet, because they are not mullahs, they have no hope of reaching the highest rungs of the ladder.

The party of the turban has two leading candidates.

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

But he may be the most unpopular figure within the establishment. Even committed Khomeinists admit that the return of Rafsanjani may do more harm than good.

Worse, "Supreme Guide" Ali Husseini Khamenei is reportedly opposed to Rafsanjani's return to the presidency. The two men have been friends for 30 years, and Khamenei may owe his present position to Rafsanjani's maneuvring on his behalf in 1989 in the wake of Khomeini's death. But if Rafsanjani returns as president, his stature and personal network could diminish the position that Khamenei has built over the years.

The second mullah to throw his turban into the ring is 63-year-old Hassan Rouhani, a mid-ranking cleric who impressed the Europeans with his negotiating skills in the talks concerning Iran's nuclear program.

According to the buzz in Tehran, Khamenei tilts toward the hat solution. Recently, he indicated his preference by promoting his own son-in-law Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel to become the first non-turbaned Speaker of the Islamic Majlis.

Again according to unverifiable reports, Khamenei would like the presidency to go to Ali-Akbar Velayati, his adviser on foreign policy. Velayati, 65, has one problem: He faces an international arrest warrant issued by a Berlin Criminal Court on charges of involvement in murdering four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in 1992.

Other "hats" that may be thrown into the ring include Ali Larijani, the former head of the state-owned radio and television network and the establishment's chief propagandist for more than 10 years; Ahmad Tavakkoli, a former commerce minister and hard-line Khomeinist, and the Revolutionary Guards may well field a candidate of their own, Gen. Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who has close ties with the hard-line factions.

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 to stand as a hat-wearing candidate collapsed when he said he would not seek any office under the present constitution. The remnants of the Khatamist movement are pinning their hopes on Mostafa Moin, a former minister of education with no base and even less name recognition.

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