Rouhani's Moment of Truth

How the Coming Assembly of Experts Vote Could Shape Iran's Future

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he stands next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after he registered for February's election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, at Interior Ministry in Tehran December 21, 2015. Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Despite the obvious constraints, elections in Iran—whether for the Assembly of Experts, the presidency, the parliament, or even the regional municipalities—can still tell observers a lot. And they also matter; they can be the difference between the slow wearing down of the hardliners’ outsized control or the further consolidation of power in their hands.

The coming February 26 elections for the Assembly of Experts are particularly consequential. First, the elderly Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s poor health raises the likelihood of a succession sometime within the next eight years (the tenure of the next assembly). Second, given that the assembly also brings together many of the regime’s leading clerical grandees, one of its members may be selected to take his place as Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Third, these elections have been scheduled and later delayed to coincide with the parliamentary elections, potentially boosting voter turnout. Understanding the institution and its politics sheds some light on how the impending succession will take shape.


The assembly came into being in 1979 as the body tasked with drafting the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This document raised the uniquely Iranian interpretation of Velayat-e Faghih or Guardianship of the Jurisconsult above other forms of civic and secular governance. Even though the assembly served out its purpose with the constitutional referendum in December that year, it was subsequently repurposed for the selection of a successor for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the republic. In this latter capacity, it has held four terms since 1983.

Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani gives the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran, March 6, 2012.
Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani gives the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran, March 6, 2012. Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Despite the checks and balances theoretically invested in the assembly to restrain the leader, critics call it a rubber-stamp institution that defers to the person it is supposed to supervise. Furthermore, candidates angling for a place in the assembly are subject to vetting by the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are either directly or indirectly picked by the Supreme Leader. In other

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