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Friday, 28 August, 1998, 22:20 GMT 23:20 UK
Q&A: Religion or reform for Iran?

The upcoming national elections for the Assembly of Experts, Iran's most important religious institution, are the first time the country has gone to the polls since the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

The Assembly of Experts chooses and appoints Iran's supreme religious leader, who also stands as the country's ultimate decision-maker. Therefore, a conservative or reformist assembly can have a great impact on the way in which Iran conducts and manages both domestic and world affairs.

What is the Assembly of Experts?

Following Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, the country's new religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, looked to a group of religious experts and clerics to translate his idea of the model Islamic state into reality.

Called the Assembly of Experts, the 73-strong group re-wrote the country's essentially secular draft constitution to make it more sensitive to Islamic teachings. The assembly is elected every eight years by the people.

The constitution institutionalised the office of the Faqih, the country's religious leader and ultimate decision-maker. It designated Khomeini as the Faqih for life.

In 1989, Khomeini died. The Assembly of Experts was formally elected by the country to choose his successor.

After lengthy deliberations, another conservative, then president Khameini, was named the faqih.

What is its function?

According to the constitution, the primary duty of the Assembly of Experts is to appoint the Faqih or the supreme religious leader, who remains in this position for life.

The experts review and consult among themselves all the religious men possessing the appropriate qualifications to hold the religious leadership.

If a single religious leader cannot be recognised consensually, the experts choose five equally qualified men who will then form a collective Faqih, or Leadership Council.

The Assembly of Experts also has the sole power to dismiss the Faqih, should he be unable to fulfill his duties or if he loses one of the qualifications.

How is the assembly elected?

Constitutionally, the assembly is open to anyone, including women, as long as they have achieved the required level of learning in Islam and social and political issues.

But although the people of Iran elect the Assembly of Experts, candidates must first be approved by the 12-member Council of Guardians.

The latter is comprised of six clerics, directly chosen by the Faqih, and six lay jurists, appointed by the country's chief judge.

The Council of Guardians draws up the law determining the number and qualifications of the experts and the mode of their election. This is then approved by the Faqih.

Does the assembly have any other functions?

The assembly's role, in all aspects of its work, is connected with the country's religious leadership.

It acts as a type of watchdog, monitoring the activities of the Faqih and observing whether he is carrying out his duties properly.

The assembly has annual meetings and many of the experts are involved in a variety of different religious commissions.

Details of its meetings are not published or disclosed in any way, which for some, reflects an element of secrecy concerning the assembly's activities.

What is the current political situation?

In recent years, Iran has seen its reformist movement find new impetus, especially as a result of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami coming to power.

Last month saw students in their hundreds taking to the streets of Tehran condemning the conservatives and demanding further reform with regard to freedom of speech and womens' rights.

A rally was womens in support of women and non-clerics being allowed to run for the election to the Assembly of Experts.

There is also discontent over the power of the Council of Guardians to choose who should be allowed to stand for election to the assembly.

The reformist interior minister, Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari, has said that fair elections are a must and differences in opinion should be tolerated.

President Khatami's supporters have also said that if the council tries to block candidates running in the election, the turnout would be minimal, damaging the image of the Islamic system.

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