Elections for Assembly of Experts Puts Spotlight on Future of Leadership in Iran
Although Iran’s Assembly of Experts has the power to select or depose the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, it has never been seen as an influential body. The image of this popularly elected body of Islamic jurists and scholars that generally comes to mind for the average Iranian is a rubber-stamp chamber full of very old men. As such, past elections for the 86-member body have not generated much excitement.
But the advancing age of the current supreme leader, 76-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, and health issues that have included his recent bout with prostate cancer, have turned the upcoming elections, slated for February 26, 2016, into a real fight.
Before the mass public protests that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, which were violently put down by the state, the Assembly of Experts hardly made any news. Since then, cracks between competing political factions in Iran have deepened.
Primarily, these fissures are between hardliners, who are led by Khamenei and dominant in the Assembly, the Parliament, the Judiciary, and Iran’s intelligence and security agencies, and more moderate factions, which include the centrist Rouhani administration as well as various reformist political groupings.
The possibility that the future chosen leader may not be as hardline as the ultraconservative Khamenei has intensified the ruling faction’s sense of insecurity. Given the ultimate power and authority that the supreme leader has in Iran, hardline factions are trying to ensure that their current majority in the Assembly of Experts will be preserved in the upcoming elections to the body, and that they will thus be able to control the election of Iran’s next supreme leader.
Concern over the future among pro-Khamenei hardline conservatives has increased so much over recent months that they have initiated debate on a topic previously considered taboo: What will happen when Khamenei dies?
“May God protect the Leader and give him a long life. Nevertheless, we must think about the period after him…. The people must be very careful in who they vote for in the Assembly of Experts elections. They must choose wisely. They must pay complete attention to the status of this body,” said Ghorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, a member of the Assembly of Experts’ Governing Board, on May 18, 2014. He called on people to cast their vote in a way that would not “damage” the Assembly.
A few months later, a senior member of the Association of Combatant Clerics, which is allied with Khamenei, also expressed concern about the consequences of the leader’s mortality. “I’m worried. But my worries don’t concern the present leadership. No member of the Assembly of Experts would dare stand up to the Great Leader of the Revolution Seyed Ali Khamenei. But the problem is after him. May God protect him…but what happens after him is important,” said Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kerman.
Khamenei’s allies were not the only ones thinking about the future. After losing a bitter battle for the Speakership of the Assembly of Experts in March 2015, Hojatoleslam Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president of Iran and current Chair of the Expediency Council, who has often been described as a pragmatic conservative and who has in recent years aligned himself with reformist factions, said his defeat was not going to impact his effectiveness. “In sensitive times I don’t have to be the Speaker to have an impact. I am still a member of the Assembly’s Governing Board. If the time comes for choosing a new leader, I can still speak and give my views,” he said.
FOURTH SESSION OF THE ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS
The elections for the previous (fourth) session of the Assembly of Experts took place in December 2006, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first year as president. Ayatollah Ali Meshkini retained his seat as well as his Speakership of the Assembly. In August 2007, Meshkini died and Rafsanjani easily won the Assembly’s vote to replace him as Speaker. But Rafsanjani’s gradual political downfall began after Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani’s victory in by-elections to fill the Assembly seat left vacant by Meshkini.
At the time, Mahdavi Kani denied he had any desire to stand against Rafsanjani for the Speakership of the Assembly. The ultraconservatives kept Kani on hold until Rafsanjani’s relations with Khamenei began to cool in 2009, when their views clashed over the outcome of the presidential election that year. Rafsanjani refused to distance himself from those who questioned the authenticity of the vote count, and as a result he lost Khamenei’s confidence and fell out of favor with the pro-Khamenei majority of the Assembly of Experts.
In the 2011 election for the Governing Board of the Assembly, Kani decided to run against Rafsanjani. Given the hostile atmosphere toward Rafsanjani, his defeat was a forgone conclusion. He decided not to contest the challenge and stepped aside. To add insult to injury, Khamenei openly praised Kani’s victory as a “suitable choice”.
Kani’s Speakership and backing from Khamenei boosted his chances for replacing him if the supreme leader passed away. But others were campaigning for the top job as well. The biggest challenge came from Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, another Khamenei devotee, though with a more radical edge. On April 24, 2012, a letter appeared in the Iranian press from “a group of Imam Sadegh University students” declaring their support for Mesbah Yazdi as the heir to Khamenei. The letter was a direct attack on Kani, who was also the head of Imam Sadegh University.
With Kani’s death in October 2014 (he was 83) (www.mashreghnews.ir/fa/news/355909) the battle for the Speakership intensified once again. Rafsanjani tried his luck once more and stood against a long-time conservative opponent, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, for the Speakership. But the pro-Khamenei faction exerted its will and Rafsanjani lost by a margin of almost two to one (47-24).
KHAMENEI’S OPPOSITION TO THE ASSEMBLY’S SUPERVISORY ROLE
The mass protests that gripped the country after the June 2009 presidential election and the subsequent feuding at the highest levels of the ruling class shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic in a way unseen since its birth in 1979. As Khamenei fought the biggest challenge to his leadership with chants of “Death to Dictator, Death to Khamenei” raging in the streets, rival factions began to contemplate a future without him. To shape the future in their favor, they needed to control the Assembly of Experts.
Currently, Khamenei loyalists maintain a comfortable majority in the Assembly. They consider Rafsanjani and his supporters a primary threat, especially after his critical June 9, 2009, open letter to the supreme leader, which they are convinced instigated and emboldened the post-election protesters because of its “disrespectful” tone. Rafsanjani lent his support to the opposition and questioned the validity of Ahmadinejad’s victory.
Then, in July 2010, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric now living in the United States, wrote an open letter to Rafsanjani calling for an investigation into whether Khamenei was fit to remain supreme leader. At the time, Rafsanjani was the Speaker of the Assembly of Experts whose duty is to monitor the current leader to ensure he meets the qualifications listed in the constitution. Pointing to the bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters during the Green Movement, which arose after the 2009 election, Kadivar declared Khamenei had become a “total dictator” and thus no longer met the condition required for a just ruler.
Rafsanjani did not reply to Kadivar’s letter and that angered Rafsanjani’s opponents even more, who had expected denunciation of such a document.
“Kadivar’s letter questioned the State in its entirety. The Assembly of Experts should be the protector of the State and therefore Mr. Rafsanjani, as the Speaker of the Assembly, should have responded to Kadivar’s letter at the earliest opportunity so that other opponents would not dare do the same,” Ayatollah Seyed Hashem Boushehri said in criticism of Rafsanjani’s silence.
Kadivar’s letter was just one example of the many expressions of criticism against Khamenei by the general public and prominent individuals during those turbulent months. Khamenei chose to respond with a heavy hand, and his closest supporters declared him to be infallible and dismissed any need for monitoring by the Assembly of Experts.
“The vali-e-faghih (the supreme jurist or leader) never makes a mistake in his decision-making. If he tries to make a decision that is 100 percent against the interests of the Islamic Nation, Imam Zaman will advise him against it in any way he can,” Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said in July 2011.
Soon thereafter, a pamphlet titled “The Strategic Infallibility of the Supreme Leader” was widely distributed in the country to prove Ali Khamenei was perfect and therefore beyond reproach. In July 2012, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi declared “the supreme leader unique among all things on Earth and the Heavens.”
Then, shortly before his death, Kani, as Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, presented a novel interpretation of the Assembly’s duty to monitor the supreme leader: “We must monitor things in order to protect the leader from attacks. We in the Assembly must use our chest as a shield to protect him.” Khamenei’s supporters thus reduced the Assembly to nothing more than a rubber-stamp institution.
One of the few voices in opposition to the idea of infallibility has been Ali Motahhari, who is a Member of Parliament from Tehran and the son of a senior theologian. “As a simple citizen of this country I believe every person in any position has the right to criticize,” he said in a speech in the holy city of Mashhad in December 2014. “It doesn’t make sense to say that no one can question the theologians in the Assembly of Experts. They have a duty to investigate the actions of the supreme leader but so far we have not seen them do anything.”
A few days later, Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardline ultraconservative Friday Imam of Mashhad, responded that the Assembly of Experts could not monitor the supreme leader just as an employee could not supervise his boss. “We cannot question the infallible vali-e faghih and say his decisions were wrong,” he said.
Despite the efforts to silence opposing views, religious circles have been alive with debates for and against the idea that the supreme leader can do no wrong. In an article titled “Presumption of Rulers’ Infallibility”, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Soroush Mahallati, a seminary professor in Qom, noted that the Prophet of Islam and his household did not escape mistakes or calamities “so how can you expect the leader in our times will do nothing wrong?”
ON HOLD: MONITORING THE SUPREME LEADER
in February 2012, seminary professor Hojatoleslam Seyed Abbas Nabavi addressed a group of hardline supporters in Tehran and claimed that Khamenei was explicitly opposed to the monitoring of his actions by the Assembly of Experts. “Once the Assembly declares that the vali-e-faghih is fit to be supreme leader, it cannot hold him accountable for every little decision he makes.”
More light was shed on Khamenei’s position by his loyal supporter Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. In an interview published in the official magazine of the Assembly of Experts, Hokoomat e Eslami (Islamic Rule), Jannati said that a decision was made to set up committees to investigate the activities of the supreme leader in various fields, but Khamenei opposed the idea.
“We had to determine whether the constitution gave this responsibility to the Assembly of Experts or not? Did Article 111 of the constitution state that we have to investigate every institution connected with the supreme leader and hold him responsible for their violations? [Mr. Khamenei] made a very reasonable argument in our relatively long conversations that Article 111 of constitution does not say that,” Jannati recalled. He added that Khamenei was especially opposed to any investigation into military affairs.
Although the Assembly of Experts is ostensibly independent of the supreme leader, it has so far chosen to allow Khamenei to impose his views. That could change with the upcoming elections for the fifth session of the Assembly—which will likely be faced with the responsibility of choosing a new supreme leader—and this is exactly what so unnerves hardliners in Iran.