by Matthew McAllester (Middle East Correspondent)
Group seeks to end increased freedom
May 9, 2001
Tehran -- Once a month a self-selected group of about 100 alumni of the Haqqani seminary get together at their old school in the religious town of Qom to discuss how best to retain their control over Iran.
Among them are the conservative clerics who preside over Iran's courts, perhaps the country's most important institution of power. Others in the carpeted meeting room are Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and head of an influential government body called the Expediency Council; and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a leading member of another key body, the Guardian Council. At the spiritual center of the group is Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who preaches a particularly uncompromising version of Islamic politics.
These mullahs form what is known as the Haqqani Circle. They are secretive and strongly opposed to further political liberalization. And they wield enormous power in Iran.
"We have meetings and up to a point on a lot of issues we try to coordinate," said Ayatollah Ali Fallahian, a key member of the circle. Fallahian, a man whose name tends to be uttered in low tones and unsmilingly by ordinary Iranians, was intelligence minister from 1989 to 1997.
Since the 1979 revolution, the largely hidden power of the Haqqani Circle has not been so publicly exerted -- or tested -- as now, in the months leading to Iran's presidential election on June 8. In 1997, when reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami won a landslide victory, it caught the Haqqani Circle, like many others, by surprise.
But the powers of Iran's presidency -- and its parliament, where reformists also have won control -- are sharply limited. The appointed councils of clerics, where the Haqqani Circle's mullahs are prominent, have used their broad constitutional authority to stymie Khatami's campaign to liberalize politics and expand personal freedoms.
As Khatami runs for re-election, the battle for Iran's political identity has intensified, and the Haqqani school's alumni are making their power felt. Fallahian is running for president, Jannati and his Guardian Council colleagues have the authority to vet all presidential candidates -- and other Haqqani graduates, now judges, have been sentencing dozens of reformist journalists and politicians to jail.
Khatami will almost certainly win reelection. But if he does, he will still face the entrenched power of conservative clerics led by the Haqqani Circle, who have stymied his efforts to bring change in his first term. In that period, the clerics have jailed dozens of Khatami's political allies and closed numerous newspapers that supported him. They ordered a violent crackdown on student protests in 1999 and, according to their opponents, have orchestrated the murders of several reformist figures.
With Iran's population, notably its youth, broadly demanding the reforms that Khatami seeks, analysts and politicians in Iran voice fear that the country's political atmosphere could grow explosive if the stalemate continues indefinitely.
The Haqqani Circle "is the main nucleus of power," said an Iranian political analyst who usually speaks on the record but, because of recent arrests of government critics, asked to remain anonymous. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "is more or less in the hands of the power group. I think they have been able to grab all the sources of power in the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guard."
The Haqqani Circle "is very significant," said a Western diplomat in Tehran. "It's a feature of Iranian society to belong to groups. In Haqqani's case, it's a group of students who stick together and help each other. There's no doubt that these people are in the positions of power. They operate through contacts in the leader's office and they liaise with Qom. If Qom says OK, they go ahead. The Qom angle is vital for anything that matters in Iran."
Fallahian, in a rare interview with a Western news organization, acknowledged that he and his fellow alumni have close links with the Khamenei.
"If there is a need to, we do" see him, said Fallahian, speaking in his office in Tehran, where he runs a cultural center devoted to the study of the Koran. "On a regular basis. We go to see the leader once a year but in our own ways we go to see him individually."
Fallahian said he is running for president on a platform of modernizing the economy, propagating Islamic values beyond Iran and drawing Iran's youth back from the attractions of Western materialism to Islamic spiritual values.
Fallahian is not considered at all likely to win the presidency. Some observers say he is running to repair his reputation, which was damaged last year when a prominent Iranian investigative reporter, Akbar Ganji, accused him in court of being the "master key" behind a series of political murders in Iran. Ganji also accused Rafsanjani, Yazdi and other Haqqani graduates of being involved in the political killings.
During Fallahian's tenure as intelligence minister, scores of Iranian dissidents were murdered overseas, and Western intelligence agencies reportedly consider him to have been central in organizing such killings. In 1996, a German court issued a warrant for his arrest in the 1992 assassination of three Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.
Ganji was the first to name the Haqqani Circle's members and to describe its hierarchy. In January, after Ganji accused Fallahian and other circle members of involvement in the killings of dissidents, the Haqqani-controlled judiciary sentenced him to 10 years in prison for, among other things, "spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime." The chief judge in clerical and press cases is a graduate of Haqqani whom Ganji also accused of ordering political murder.
"It's natural that should be opposed to us because he is a criminal and he was free to curse at us" in court, said Fallahian. "Public opinion was surprised by his statements."
Even though the conservatives in the Haqqani group and beyond still control the key levers of power in the country, the reformists' landslides have created unprecedented insecurity among the hardline mullahs. In 1997, Khatami won 70 percent of nearly 30 million votes cast, a turnout almost two-thirds greater than in the previous presidential election.
Some Iranians say a rising fear of losing power is what has driven the hardliners, with the Haqqani Circle at their core, to the crackdown of the past year.
"The idea is definitely to stop ... [the reformist movement] any way they can and ultimately to get rid of President Khatami," said Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University.
In their bid to retain power, the Haqqani Circle works hard at maintaining the relationship of key members to Khamenei, who has almost unlimited power in Iran.
"Some work in his office and he trusts them," Semati said. "He feels they are submissive to whatever he says. Whether they will stay loyal if he changes his views is another question."
Recent months have brought strong signs that Khamenei has moderated his views since he tacitly opposed Khatami's candidacy in 1997. Now, some allies of the leader sound more like reformists than hardliners -- a sign, analysts say, that Khamenei wants the Islamic Republic to change gradually under the cautious clerical auspices of Khatami, who is himself a mullah.
"I think the leader approves of Mr. Khatami but because he has to be father to all groups he can't speak as clearly as Mr. Khatami," said Taha Hashemi, the owner of the center-right newspaper Entekhab and a close adviser to Khamenei. Hashemi attends Khamenei's exclusive Koranic study group three times per week and meets with him regularly on political issues.
Through allies like Hashemi, Khamenei may be subtly spreading the word that he no longer fully supports the extreme right in the judiciary. "People involved in the judiciary must be made to move away from partisan politics," Hashemi said, when asked about the Haqqani Circle's influence. "I don't have clear statistics about how many judges attended the Haqqani school. But not everyone who has been to Haqqani is a bad guy."
Students at the modern-day incarnation of Haqqani -- the school has changed buildings and is now called the Two Martyrs seminary -- do not appear to be very interested in politics, let alone the kind of power-brokering that some of the school's alumni engage in.
"It's not important to be famous or not," said Mohsen Taba Tabaiee, 26, a teacher of Arabic literature at the school and one of its 260 students, all of them men. "Working in government would stop our studies."
On a recent afternoon, the students of Two Martyrs padded the cool, tiled corridors and sat studying in the quadrangle of the yellow brick building in Qom, continuing the 15-year-long course of study that most seminarians undertake before graduating.
The traditions that schooled Rafsanjani and Fallahian are still in place and go some way to explaining why Haqqani and no other seminary produced so many powerful religious politicians. While most seminaries concentrate solely on teaching Islam and Arabic, the clerics who established the Haqqani school in 1962 wanted their students to be more worldly. Its curriculum includes courses in sociology, political science, English, economics, Western philosophy, history and other Western-oriented disciplines. The original aim, Fallahian said with a chuckle, was to train missionaries to spread the word of Islam in the United States.
"As a result, the graduates had a better presence in social and political circles," Fallahian said.
To this day, the students who live and work in the shuttered world of the seminary have a well-stocked library of English-language books, ranging from Shakespeare to Jack Higgins to Bram Stoker's horror novel, "Dracula."
"When you learn another language you become another person and English is the international language," Tabaiee said, as he walked around the quad in his sandals, well-pressed shirt and long brown clerical robe.
Students became uneasy when talk turned to the powerful men who graduated from the institution. "The people behind the Revolution, a lot of them came from this school," said Amir Rastani, 19, who spent most of his life in the United States but has recently returned to Iran to study at Two Martyrs. "Here they try to teach you everything they know and more."
Most others did not want to discuss the famous alumni. One student, requesting anonymity, simply said: "Not all graduates of Haqqani are like Mr. Fallahian."