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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.
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 words, Khamenei ultimately decides the fate of his own oversight committee. But when it comes time to choose the next supreme leader, the alignment of preferences among the assembly’s 88 members (recently increased from 86 to accommodate the relatively new Alborz province) will actually have bite.
That is why the election of assembly members should be closely watched. Elections are comprised of direct votes per province for eight-year terms. The chairs of the assembly are elected internally by secret ballot for two-year tenures. For nearly a quarter of a century between1983–2007, Ali Meshkini, a key regime figure and a hardline ayatollah of Azeri descent chaired the assembly. His death in 2007 effectively opened the way for the first true internal competition for the body’s top job. In what ensued, the more moderate pragmatic Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been speaker of parliament, president, longtime head of the country’s influential Expediency Council, and a confidante of Khomeini until his death in 1989, famously trumped the ultraconservative head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.
In 2011—two rounds of leadership balloting later—Rafsanjani ceded power to a visibly infirm Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, a less hardline traditional conservative whom Khamenei is thought to have coaxed to the post following Rafsanjani’s damning support for the reformists in the 2009 Green Movement protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After Mahdavi-Kani’s heart attack-induced coma in 2014, Rafsanjani again made a bid for the position. But he lost by a nearly two-fold margin to another hardline conservative and former head of judiciary, Mohammad Yazdi, who currently chairs the assembly.
The assembly’s composition throughout the decades is in many ways even more important. In the first assembly (1983–91), conservatives made up the bulk of members even as their opponents maintained control over other key institutions such as the prime ministry and the parliament. From the second assembly onward (1991–99), the increasingly influential conservatives marginalized their opponents, the radicals, who were by now reinventing themselves as reformists. The radicals-turned-reformists’ general lack of high-ranking clerics worked against them as the Guardian Council foisted new religious requirements on assembly members. At the same time, voter turnout for assembly elections plunged by over half, which hardly reflected well on regime legitimacy.
Little changed during the third assembly (1999–2007), with conservatives continuing to hold the majority despite efforts by Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration to soften the Guardian Council’s control of assembly elections. Excluding the 12 seats that Rafsanjani’s moderate conservatives won, the traditional conservatives alone held 49 of the total 86 seats. Although encouraging signs of change appeared in the candidacies of non-clerics and even women, they were ultimately rejected.
At the start of the current assembly (2007–16), growing tensions within the right–wing saw traditional conservatives making gains at the expense of the ultraconservatives allied with the Ahmadinejad administration, most prominently those associated with the notorious firebrand cleric Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. But over the period, the assembly’s top post swapped hands several times, alternating among pragmatic, traditional, and hardline conservative bidders.
At the moment, hardliners and conservatives who are also closely affiliated with the Association of Qom Seminary Theologians and the Combatant Clergy Society remain a clear majority. Indeed, of the 20 or so living veterans who have been members in at least four of the five previous terms (including the original 1979 constitutional assembly), only one—Sayyed Kazem Nourmofidi, Khamenei’s representative in Golestan province and Gorgan’s Friday Prayer Imam—is known to be a moderate and indeed, a reformist. Some 801 candidates have reportedly registered to run for the coming fifth assembly (2016–24), a 60 percent increase over the previous round of registration. Whatever the proportion of hardliners, their presence will likely only grow stronger as the Guardian Council disqualifies a large number of candidates. Even so, voter turnout for the assembly, traditionally low, could be boosted since the vote will take place at the same time as parliamentary elections.
Because traditional conservatives and hardliners have been the majority since the beginning, the Iranian media takes note when prominent moderates and certainly reformists announce their intent to run. Now in his 80s and subtly sidelined by Khamenei and the hardliners, Rafsanjani recently refloated the option of creating a leadership council as opposed to the current one-man show. This was clearly an attempt to return front and center rather than to strengthen Iran’s Republican values. But even more important this time is Hassan Khomeini, the 43-year-old grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder who decided on December 18 that he would run for the assembly. Unlike Rafsanjani, Qom-born Khomeini’s hallowed lineage and relatively cordial relations with Khamenei, despite run-ins with hardliners in the past and ties to reformists, still puts him in a league apart. If the Guardian Council doesn’t stonewall his candidacy, Khomeini could muster a massive groundswell of support and bring out the voters for both the assembly and parliamentary elections, at the very least diminishing the prospects of a default conservative walkover.
Given the recent foreign policy gains in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations by President Hassan Rouhani, himself an assembly member and a perceived moderate, hardliners have all the more reason to worry about their political careers. The eventual lifting of sanctions would likely reshape the structure of incentives among Iran’s economic players, creating space for greater competition to the detriment of the Revolutionary Guards and their allies. Unsurprisingly, hardliners have sought to best the moderates on home ground by clamping down on civil society and individuals with connections to the United States and the West, thereby perpetuating a familiar compensatory pattern in factional wrangling.
Perhaps feeling the pressure, Iran’s hardline judiciary has pursued a campaign against Sayyed Mahmoud Doaei, the reformist editor of Ettela’at newspaper but no less an official Khamenei representative, for breaking the ban on press coverage of reformist ex-president Khatami, who had supported the Green Movement. Similarly, the Revolutionary Guards have flaunted ballistic missile tests in violation of UN Resolution 1929 and even reportedly fired several rockets during naval maneuvers near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in late December despite, or more likely because of the nuclear agreement. More dramatically, the firebombing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by unidentified provocateurs in response to the Saudis’ execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has provided plenty of grist for the hardliners’ mill, threatening to reverse Iran’s steady rehabilitation from international isolation.
When that fateful moment comes for the conclave of clerics, it is the naked power of numbers and the collusion of key veto players that will determine Iran’s post-Khamenei future. Some suspect that a select committee of hardliners within the assembly might attempt to unilaterally appoint the next leader. Even if the reformists pass muster and a non-hardliner assumes the assembly chair, the chances of them pushing through a winning coalition at succession time remains frustratingly limited. Three major obstacles ultimately stand in the way of any alterations to the domestic balance of power. First and foremost is the Guardian Council, which was deliberately created to perpetuate this conservative status quo and is unlikely to abandon its calling anytime soon. The second is the Revolutionary Guards who, riding on the coattails of the same status quo, have a vested interest in avoiding change. But most important is the same individual the Assembly of Experts is supposed to choose and supervise, which means that any hope of real change, both at home and abroad alike, probably has to wait.