On Edge: Jannati, Conservatives Nervous About Assembly of Experts Election

The Assembly of Experts is a deliberative body of 88 Mujtahids (Islamic theologians) with the exclusive power to select, monitor, and even dismiss the Supreme Leader of Iran. Members are elected by popular vote to eight year terms, with the next elections set to take place on 26 February 2016 – concurrently with the Parliamentary elections.

Just like those hoping to run in the Parliamentary elections, candidates for the Assembly of Experts must be approved by the Guardian Council. The Council requires candidates to be experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and vets them through a series of written and oral examinations. In practice this process has been used by the Guardian Council to disqualify most high-ranking clerics from the reformist camp, and to maintain conservative domination of the Assembly. Controversially, members of the Guardian Council themselves can and do run for the Assembly of Experts, after having disqualified many other competing candidates while in the Council – an obvious conflict of interest.

The mass disqualification of candidates who are legally eligible to run has become a sort of tradition come election time, and Iranians are accustomed to the repetitive justifications offered by the Guardian Council for why seemingly eligible candidates cannot run.

(See Also: Why Have So Many Candidates Registered for Iran’s Upcoming 2016 Elections?)

The chairman of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, recently expressed skepticism about the eligibility of some of the 800 candidates who have registered to run in the Assembly of Experts election. Jannati, a leading conservative figure, questioned whether or not “all the individuals who registered [for the election] consider themselves Mujtahids,” and claimed that “some of them are not even able to read one word of Arabic, let alone recite the Koran.”

(See Also: 7 Things to Know About Seyed Hassan Khomeini’s Candidacy for the Assembly of Experts)

Jannati’s claims are almost certainly unfounded, and it is doubtful that any of the individuals seeking candidacies are incapable of reading Arabic or reciting the Koran. Ayatollah Jannati’s concerns likely go beyond issues of religious qualification to ensuring the continued domination of the Assembly of Experts by conservative members. A number of developments have Jannati worried:

The Assembly of Experts Election has Become Competitive

A look at the composition of the Assembly of Experts after its past four elections indicates the uncompetitive nature of those contests, and shows how conservative forces have repeatedly succeeded in winning seats in the Assembly without ever being challenged over their qualifications. However, for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history, this year’s competitive elections look poised to challenge the dominance of conservative members in the Assembly, as well as punish those candidates who do not enjoy substantial popular support. This phenomenon is creating anxiety for Mr. Jannati and his allies.

The Triad of Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and Khomeini

Ahmad Jannati and his companions are well aware that none of the candidates aligned with their faction are powerful or influential enough to rise above the slate of candidates led by the alliance of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Rouhani, and Hassan Khomeini. Each of these three candidates are well-positioned, enjoy a strong and significant support base, and together constitute the main hope of centrist and reformist forces seeking fundamental change within the regime.  

The Likely Succession of a New Supreme Leader

Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 years old, so it is not improbable that the Assembly of Experts will have to select his successor sometime over its next 8-year term, either in the form of a new Supreme Leader or a Supreme Leadership Council. As a result, Ahmad Jannati and his allies know that any political shift in the composition of the Assembly could result in a larger change in the country’s leadership, potentially altering the power balance to the benefit of the centrist and reformist factions. Such a transformation would be an irreversible blow to the conservatives’ present political dominance. Ultimately, the most reliable way for conservatives to prevent such a change is to use the Guardian Council to manipulate the candidate approval process and ensure an Assembly that is uniformly conservative, with members who are “unconditional and unequivocal followers of Velayat” (i.e. the principle of clerical rule).   

Jannati said in the same speech that “we should put aside our differences and hold on to our unity.” There is no doubt that Jannati was addressing only one group: his conservative allies. By banding together to disqualify otherwise qualified centrist and reformist candidates, Jannati and his allies can hold on to a crucial pillar of power in the Islamic Republic.