Shockwave: The Disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini

The Guardian Council has announced the results of the Assembly of Experts candidate qualifications and a number of senior seminary figures were disqualified from running. The Council’s veto rights, its attempt to impose a particular ideological composition on the next Assembly of Experts, and the decisions that powerful circles in Iran have taken to influence the successor for Supreme Leader of Iran have all generated numerous questions for Iranians.

A number of senior Ayatollahs with reformist sympathies were disqualified, notiwthstanding their impeccable credentials. Similarly, there were other disqualified individuals who had already been members of the Assembly, including Majid Ansari, the President’s parliamentary deputy, Seyed Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, and Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad. All of these men are among the disqualified candidates and there is a widespread belief that their support for the so-called ‘Green Movement’ was the key factor in their disqualifications.

However, the disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini – the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic – was a political shockwave that washed over Iran. The mass disqualifications of about 6,000 Majlis candidates and 74% of Assembly of Experts candidates were overshadowed by this single prominent individual’s disqualification.

Below we study 6 dimensions of the disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini and its probable consequences.

(See also: Why Iran’s Assembly of Experts Elections Matter)

1. Divisions in Power Circles

The disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini has created a schism in the inner power circles of the ruling system of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini’s family, relatives, and inner circle have close ties with different sections of Iran’s labyrinthine political system, and this set of relationships has led to vast support in favour of Khomeini’s candidacy, even though some rival factions have criticized him. By contrast, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, published his photo with Khomeini in his grandfather’s shrine during the revolution’s anniversary celebrations, and pointed out in his photo caption that “paying respect to Imam Khomeini is paying respect to his path, his principles, and his family and close circle.”

In his harshest and most stinging criticisms of the Guardian Council yet, former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani denounced the disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini and questioned the Council’s motives, saying that “you have disqualified a figure who has inherited Imam Khomeini, his grandfather’s personality . . . who has qualified you [to go so far as disqualifying Khomeini]?” Rafsanjani has also implicitly suggested that imposing a certain type of election on Iranians and disrespecting people’s votes can be construed as a gap between the Islamic Republic’s power circles and its people, which ultimately constitutes “depravity and wickedness.”

Rafsanjani’s remarks were clearly and unsurprisingly followed by numerous reactions from leading figures in state institutions, with some comparing his behavior to that of an enemy. Some radical conservative Majlis MPs called for Rafsanjani’s own disqualification, even though he already serves in the Assembly. Opponents of Hassan Khomeini, on the other hand, claimed that the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini was disqualified because he had refused to participate in the Ijtihad test, and so the Guardian Council assumed he lacks the scientific credentials for the post.

Mohammad Javad Larijani is the brother of the heads of the Judiciary and Majlis, as well as chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Judiciary. Although he did not deny Hassan Khomeini’s knowledge and credentials, Larijani pointed to the political aspects of his candidacy and asserted that “the path that was taken to push for Seyed Hassan Khomeini’s candidacy – both by the reformists and the individuals who hide behind Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani] – is different from the ordinary route [to an Assembly seat]. Hostility sparks antagonism, a behavior that is not in the interest of this country.”   

2. The Impact of Khomeini’s Disqualification on the Seminary and Government Institutions

Seyed Hassan Khomeini represents a new generation of clerics that is capable of linking the past with the future. It is the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that an individual has such a large number of the most senior (Qom) seminary clergy and the most senior scholars in the field endorsing his religious competence and jurisprudential qualifications. Senior figures such as Seyed Ali Mohaghegh Damad, Ayatollah Ardebili, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Mahfouzi, Shobeiri Khaghani, and Rasti Kashani rose to the support of Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson and endorsed him. It is noteworthy that some of the senior clerics were not even politically close to him. The disqualification of young Khomeini means that the Guardian Council now prefers to snub the endorsement of the Shiite clergy in order to further its political agenda. Ayatollah Yazdi called such an approach “Clergy Ijtihad” and “Experts Ijtihad” – meaning that the Council interprets Ijtihad based on its agenda and potential for political gains. A number of senior religious scholars have criticized the Council’s position. Its disregard for the views of seminary scholars and clergy – plus its penchant for pursuing a blatantly political agenda – risks the religious legitimacy of the Assembly of Experts.

3. Social Challenges

Hassan Khomeini’s prominence in the circle of people and institutions who were close to his grandfather enables him to mobilize middle class groups, but also to attract traditional and fundamentalist groups. For this reason, the conservative political currents are concerned about the prospect of his elevation to a seat in the Assembly. On the other side, regime critics and reformist groups interpret Khomeini’s disqualification to be distancing state institutions from Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy and the principles that have legitimized the revolution.

4. The Political Future of Iran and Challenges to the Ruling System

The objections to and protests against the disqualification of Seyed Hassan Khomeini, as well as the Guardian Council’s determination to veto him, strongly suggest that specific decisions have been made regarding the appointment of the individual who will succeed the current supreme leader. Young Khomeini’s presence in the Assembly of Experts may disrupt such decisions. Moreover, behind the scenes strategies seem to have been aimed at depriving Hashemi Rafsanjani from teaming up with his allies in the Assembly, too.

Khomeini has an active presence on social media and his disqualification has generated vast and numerous reactions from different groups on these networks. Public opinion is still very sensitive to the issue his disqualification, which took place so close to the anniversary of the revolution, thereby increasing the political price that conservatives will pay for such a controversial action. It is also possible that Khomeini’s disqualification creates a schism within the ruling power circle itself, a rift that may inflict heavy losses on the Islamic Republic’s internal forces.

5. Seyed Hassan Khomeini’s Position

Khomeini’s position has been far from radical criticism. In his statement in response to the news of his disqualification, Khomeini criticized the Guardian Council, but also offered a hint of hope in his note. Despite the fact that some believed he should never have asked the Council to review his candidacy, he ultimately decided to protest his disqualification and officially request an appeal. It seems that through his personal communication channels, he has been told that a review may increase the chance that he passes the vetting process and is qualified on appeal.

6. The Leader’s Position and Plausible Predictions of the Future

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, finds himself in a challenging position with respect to Khomeini’s candidacy. He is well aware that the jurists of the Guardian Council are his appointees, and that the results and consequences of their decisions will be his enduring legacy and be recorded in history.

Iran is in a very delicate position in the international scene at present, and holding tension-free elections are likely pivotal for avoiding any new internal or international challenges, as the results of the elections could provide to the world the beneficial image of a stable Iran. A stable post-sanctions Iran that is perceived globally as such would be better positioned to work on delivering economic growth to its people.

On the other hand, if Khamenei decides to pressure the Guardian Council to open the country’s political climate and approve moderate election candidates, this will pave the way for Rouhani’s government and other moderate forces to gain influence and leverage and push conservatives out of powerful institutions like the leader’s office, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah), and Basij forces.

Mr. Khamenei has strongly emphasized the importance of the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections. It not impossible that Khamenei could embark on something that would loosen conservative control of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Khamenei would undoubtedly not want the next Iranian leader to destroy his achievements after almost three decades of his tenure. He is also looking to find a safe and trustworthy successor who would follow his vision and approach.

But the issue of Hassan Khomeini is a different story. If Iran’s leader does not interfere in this matter, he will create a rift with Ayatollah Khomeini’s close circle. In previous decades, relations between the leader and the elder Khomeini’s circle of trusted and close relatives and family have been based on mutual respect and communal etiquette. Khamenei is not willing to disrupt this image in the public eye. Open and explicit conflict could result in negative consequences for his status and legacy.

If Khamenei wants the Assembly of Experts to appoint the next supreme leader with the least difficulty, it is probable that Khamenei will not intervene in endorsing Seyed Hassan’s qualifications, even if the decision about his successor has been taken in advance by conservative elements. Khamenei may even take some steps to appease Khomeini. But it is undoubtedly clear that the Qom seminary clergy and public opinion will develop a strong and potentially negative view of the new Assembly of Experts. The late Ayatollah Khomeini’s close circle and his faithful followers will ultimately be influenced by such reactions and will join the public in its distaste for Seyed Hassan’s exclusion.

If Seyed Hassan Khomeini and a number of other senior figures are qualified as a result of the leader’s interference, then they would be politically indebted to him. The current evidence indicates that Khamenei may be more inclined to select this second option of playing a more active role in candidate qualification.

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