On Friday, the Islamic Republic of Iran will simultaneously hold votes for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts. While the parliament has received more attention, the assembly is arguably more important for Iran’s political future. The elected assembly is widely expected to choose the third supreme leader in the Islamic Republic’s history, decisively shaping its political landscape for the critical coming years.
The assembly is an 88-person body of Islamic jurists elected every eight years that holds the power to choose, supervise and even remove the supreme leader, the single most powerful office in Iran’s political system. In 1989, following the death of the first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the assembly chose Ali Khamenei as his successor in a hotly politicized contest. Khamenei, who is 76, had surgery in September 2014 and is said by some to be in ill health. The choice of Khamenei’s successor as supreme leader could be the most consequential political choice for Iran’s near-term political future. A close examination of the political theory behind and history of the Assembly of Experts tells us that Iranians’ voices will probably remain marginalized come time to choose the next supreme leader.
The role of the assembly is rooted in Khomeini’s theory of Islamic government, centering on the concept of Guardianship of the Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih) that the Islamic Republic translated into a set of concrete political institutions. The Guardianship of the Jurist established the supreme leader, who governs for life unless removed by the Assembly of Experts, at the apogee of the Iranian political system. The supreme leader holds a broad set of formal and informal powers, including the power to: appoint the leadership of key centers of power, such as the judiciary, security forces and state media; appoint six jurists to the 12-member Council of Guardians, which vets national election candidates and legislation; intervene in all national affairs through an executive command; and oversee enormously wealthy economic entities that cut across the Iranian economy and are not accountable to the rest of the state.
All Iranians 18 and older can cast ballots in their local electoral district for the assembly. Each district, corresponding with each of Iran’s provinces, is apportioned seats roughly according to population, the largest being Tehran with 16 seats. Candidates who get the most votes win the seats in their district. The assembly’s regulations allow only Islamic jurists to run as candidates. Furthermore, the Guardian Council vets all aspiring candidates and has largely allowed only centrist and conservative Shiite clergy to run as candidates, excluding reformists nearly altogether. Given the centrist-conservative nature of the candidate pool and past public apathy toward this body due to its relative inactiveness, most elections have resulted in an assembly that has only varied by shades of conservativeness.
This institution is intended to safeguard people’s role in choosing the supreme leader through the clergy. But does this mean that the supreme leader derives his legitimacy and power from the people? Two interpretations have emerged over this question. One interpretation, articulated by senior moderate Islamic jurists, such as the now-deceased ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri and Nematollah Salehi-Najafabadi, is that the supreme leader draws his legitimacy from the people who “elect” him through the assembly. A second interpretation, articulated by senior conservative jurists, such as the ayatollahs Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi and Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, is that the assembly “discovers” the right individual “selected” by God.
A related debate is whether the supreme leader’s power is limited or absolute. While a limited elected supreme leader can be supervised and replaced by a popularly elected Assembly of Experts, an absolute selected one has unlimited power and only answers to God. Although the Iranian constitution and Khomeini’s works leave open the possibility for both interpretations, the latter has arguably been dominant under Khamenei, with consequences for the assembly elected this month and choosing the next supreme leader.
The next Assembly of Experts will be forced to confront these issues with its choice of Khamenei’s successor. The Assembly of Experts has not historically regularly exercised the powers assigned to it by the Iranian constitution. It has only made three important decisions that took place during the Islamic Republic’s first decade of revolution and war from 1979 to 1989. It selected Montazeri as deputy supreme leader in 1985. It removed him from this position in 1989 when he came to blows with Khomeini and the regime over the mass execution of political prisoners and other issues. Finally, it selected Khamenei as supreme leader in the same year.
It is widely perceived that the assembly rubber-stamped all of these decisions under the influence of Khomeini and his high level of political authority, religious standing and revolutionary charisma. Under Khamenei, who has excluded opponents from entering this assembly through the Guardian Council, conservatives who view him as a divinely selected absolute supreme leader have come to dominate the body.
Could the current elections bring an Assembly of Experts that chooses a more moderate supreme leader when the current one passes?
The assembly may function differently than it was designed to during a supreme leadership succession. The supreme leader was originally supposed to be a very senior Islamic jurist with a high level of religious learning, respect among the clergy and a popular following. However, a small circle within the assembly and among Iran’s elite — led by former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — secured the elevation of Khamenei, who did not necessarily possess all of these qualities. Given the trajectory of Khamenei’s second Islamic Republic, the political power centers — including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the broader Iranian conservative current that dominates the system today — will probably have greater influence than the assembly’s deliberations alone.
The signs so far are not promising that the assembly will reflect the Iranian electorate. Out of nearly 800 aspiring candidates who registered, only 161 have been approved by the Guardian Council to compete in the election, an average of less than two candidates per seat. Disqualifications appear to have disproportionately affected the moderate camp, including centrists and reformists. For example, Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ruhollah Khomeini and an up-and-coming reformist clergyman and politician, has been disqualified.
But other signs should not be ignored either. President Rouhani and Rafsanjani, along with other moderates, have been qualified to run in the elections. Furthermore, the conservative camp has divided, with some of the traditional conservatives moving away from hard-liners and closer to the centrists on key issues. With traditional conservative, centrist and reformist elites calling on Iranians to vote for common lists in many electoral districts, we could see the emergence of a powerful centrist-traditional conservative bloc in the assembly that marginalizes hard-line conservatives.
Even such a bloc is unlikely to challenge Khamenei outright. But after his passing, it could select a new supreme leader who sets Iran on a new path.
Farzan Sabet is a nuclear security predoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University and a doctoral candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is also managing editor at IranPolitik, a website on Iranian politics. You can follow him @IranWonk.