Showdown: 6 Things to Know about Rafsanjani’s Confrontations with Conservatives

The registration of candidates for Iran’s Assembly of Experts election is now closed. A 62% increase in the number of potential candidates indicates an unprecedented rivalry and competitive environment, one which has generated concerned among conservatives.  

The Assembly of Experts has the responsibility to elect, monitor, and remove the supreme leader. This makes it arguably the most important government body whose members are selected by direct popular vote. The limiting conditions (such as Ijtihad) under which the candidates are selected, and the efforts that the conservative factions have made to keep the Assembly’s activities in the shadows, have led to limited media coverage of the Assembly of Experts election in the past, despite its enormous importance.

While the conservative camp has a tradition of keeping the Assembly of Experts in an atmosphere of secretive silence, Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Iran’s Expediency Council and a former President, has played a key role in putting a spotlight on the upcoming Assembly election.

With centrist Hassan Rouhani in power as president and the aging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ill, the public is paying unprecedented attention to the future of leadership in a post-Khamenei Iran. Hashemi Rafsanjani has masterfully directed the attention of the media to the future of the Assembly of Experts. Meanwhile, the conservative camp and other influential players have launched new waves of attacks against the pragmatic senior cleric. The harshness and brutality of the attacks against Rafsanjani in the media are unprecedented, and deserve further explanation.

The following analysis studies this confrontation from several different perspectives:

1-    A Supreme Leadership Council

Sometime before the last round of Assembly of Experts election, Hashemi Rafsanjani started speaking out to draw more attention to the role of the Assembly in the Iranian political system. In an interview with Sharq Daily, Rafsanjani offered some untold stories and details regarding Seyed Ali Khamenei’s appointment as Iran’s leader in 1989. Rafsanjani also floated the possibility of shifting the structure Iran’s leadership from a supreme leader to a supreme leadership council, which would be a group of individuals exercising the powers of the supreme leader. In the interview, Rafsanjani even said that Khamenei had supported this idea after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Rafsanjani’s statements strengthened the suspicion among his opponents that he is determined to implement such a plan, even though the Islamic Republic’s Constitution does not recognize a supreme leadership council as a legally valid option. A number of senior influential figures who were appointed by the leader’s direct decree, or are very close to Khamenei’s circle, such as Firoozabadi and Sadegh Larijani, have reacted furiously to Rafsanjani’s proposal.

2-    Supervising the Leader

Rafsanjani also bluntly reminded everyone that the Assembly of Expert’s supervision of the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei has practically been nonexistent, even though supervising the supreme leader is one of its responsibilities according to Article 111 of the constitution. He suggested that the new Assembly of Experts should revive its forgotten and neglected supervisory role over the institutions and government bodies that are under the leader’s control.

A number of Assembly of Experts members had previously lamented that they are not permitted to monitor or supervise organizations, especially military institutions that are active under the leader’s watchful eye.

Should discussions about supervising the supreme leader become a matter of public debate,  the logical next step is criticizing his management of the affairs of the country. This is a door that the Leader’s Office does not want opened during the Assembly of Experts election.

Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, reacted harshly to this suggestion, and claimed that there is no article in the Constitution to prescribe overseeing the actions of the supreme leader. Conversely, a number of senior clerics in the Guardian Council (such as Ayatollah Momen) and even the chair of the current Assembly of Experts (Ayatollah Yazdi) have stated that supervising the leader is among the duties and responsibilities of the Assembly of Experts.

3-    Future Successor to the Leader

Hashemi Rafsanjani has suggested that a secret commission should be established in order to study individuals who may be eligible to take the mantle of leadership in the Islamic Republic after Khamenei’s death. He also pointed to the influence of the current leader and his role in the appointment of the future leader. Due to the high sensitivity of the matter, the Iranian press has not covered the issue of leadership succession. The conservative factions have ultimately avoided the discussion altogether.

4-    Hashemi Rafsanjani’s Attempt to Mobilize the Participation of Seminary Experts

Since 2013, Hashemi Rafsanjani has continued his political lobbying with social groups on a daily basis. Apart from his daily meetings, he has traveled to Qom and encouraged seminary heavyweights to participate in the election. Rafsanjani was the first individual to invite Seyed Hassan Khomeini to participate in the Assembly of Experts election. After he called Hassan Khomeini an “Allamah” (a highly regarded religious scholar), a wave of negative propaganda against Khomeini was launched. The conservative camp now feels that Rafsanjani is trying to invite “Mujtahids” and senior scholars from the Qom seminary to the election scene. As these individuals are highly qualified and knowledgeable, the Guardian Council cannot plausibly disqualify them based on a lack of religious scholarship. Conservative forces are worried that Rafsanjani is attempting to challenge their dominance and change the composition of the Assembly of Experts. The hardline conservatives have in turn required candidates who had not previously been members of the Assembly of Experts to participate in the “Ijtihad” test, with the particular aim of denying Hassan Khomeini a platform and preventing reformists from gaining momentum.  

5-    The Victory of Rafsanjani’s list in Tehran and the Elimination of Senior Conservatives in the Election

Rafsanjani’s ability to offer a list of 15 moderate and traditional clerics for election in Tehran has turned into the biggest fear of the conservative faction. The number of registrations in a greatly polarized election reveals that the list sponsored by Rafsanjani, Rouhani, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, and Mousavi Bojnourdi – and supported by Mohammad Khatami – would probably increase the participation of middle class Iranians in the Assembly of Experts election in Tehran in an unprecedented way. As a result of great public participation, there is a possibility that the leaders of the hardline conservative camp and the current board of directors—Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Khatami, Movaheddi Kermani, Ebrahim Raiessi, Ahmad Jannati and Mesbah Yazdi—could fail to gain enough votes to enter the next Assembly of Experts.

This scenario causes great anxiety for hardline conservatives, as the list of the candidates that this camp is introducing in Tehran consists of the most high profile and leading figures of the conservative faction, which will have to compete with Hashemi Rafsanjani’s list of candidates in the capital.

6-    Organized infiltration in the bureaucratic system and the Rouhaniat Society

Hashemi Rafsanjani is a member of “Rouhaniat Mobarez Society” (the Society for Combatant Clerics) and  traditionalist clerics have high regard for him. In order to confront Rafsanjani, the conservative camp faces challenges directly connected to his influence among the Rouhaniat (Mobarez).

There has been a strong lobbying effort to include Hashemi Rafsanjani’s name in the list of Rouhaniat Mobarez in Tehran. If this aspiration is fulfilled, the hardline conservative faction will have to pay a high price to confront Rafsanjani. His influence within the bureaucratic system has also increased since Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election. As a result, the bureaucratic system can play an important role in neutralizing any measures conservatives may take against Rafsanjani during the election.


In future articles we will review the potential methods and possible scenarios that the conservative faction may adopt to confront Rafsanjani, as well as the possible consequences of all this gamesmanship for Iran’s power structure.