Why Iran’s 2016 Assembly of Experts Elections Matter
While Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament or “majlis”) has received the bulk of attention in the lead up to the 26 February 2016 Iranian elections, the arguably more important Assembly of Experts elections set to take place on the same day remain shrouded in mystery. The Assembly of Experts is an 88-person body of Islamic jurists who are elected every eight years by general ballot. It theoretically has the power to select, supervise, and remove a supreme leader or supreme leadership council and is thus constitutionally one of the most important centers of power in the Islamic Republic. The current term of the Assembly of Experts, which began in 2006 and should have ended in 2014, was extended by two years to synchronise it with the parliamentary election cycle with the goal of minimising election costs and maximising voter turnout. Here we explore the Assembly of Experts’ history, the political theory behind it, and why the current elections are so consequential for Iran’s political future.
The Assembly of Experts, despite its theoretical importance, has rarely exercised its authority. During the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini from 1979 to 1989 it played a limited role given the first supreme leader’s high level of religious standing, political authority, and revolutionary charisma. In 1985, the assembly selected Ayatollah Montazeri as deputy supreme leader and successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. However, in 1989 it removed Ayatollah Montazeri from the deputy supreme leadership due to the latter’s disagreements with Ayatollah Khomeini and the regime over the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in summer 1988, among other issues.
Both Ayatollah Montazeri’s selection and removal as deputy supreme leader, however, can be attributed to the will of Ayatollah Khomeini rather than the Assembly of Experts acting of its own volition. The other major decision attributed to the assembly is the selection of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader in 1989, although it is believed that the backroom manoeuvring of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani also played a significant role in this choice. The assembly has effectively not exercised its supervisory function during the rule of Ayatollah Khamenei. Dominated by conservatives (or principalists) who view Ayatollah Khamenei as an absolute supreme leader, it has shown complete deference to him.
The upcoming Assembly of Experts elections and the supreme leadership have at their core Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s political theory of Guardianship of the Jurist (Velayat-e Faghih), which states that before the arrival of the prophesied twelfth imam of Shi’a Islam (the “Mahdi”), the Shi’a clergy has the authority to provide political guidance to the community of believers. This theory is embodied by the supreme leadership, which sits at the apex of Iran’s political and religious hierarchies. The supreme leadership has a vast range of powers: It appoints the heads of Iran’s judiciary, security forces, and media; essentially appoints the Council of Guardians, a 12 person body responsible for vetting both national election candidates and legislation to ensure compliance with Islamic criteria; can directly intervene in the largest or smallest issue in the country through an executive command (hokm-e hokumati); and holds sway over charitable foundations with vast holdings, forming the economic and financial basis of the office’s power.
One’s view of the importance of the Assembly of Experts elections depends in part on one’s view of the source and scope of the supreme leadership’s power: Does it come from the people or God? Is it absolute or limited? One interpretation, by senior Islamic jurists such as the now deceased ayatollahs Hossein-Ali Montazeri and Neimatollah Salehi-Najafabadi, is that the supreme leadership derives its legitimacy from the people and is thus popularly “elected”. A second interpretation, by senior jurists such the ayatollahs Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi and Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, is that the supreme leadership derives its legitimacy from God and is therefore divinely “selected”. Whether the supreme leadership is “elected” or “selected” has important consequences, as one version is responsive to popular opinion and more democratic while one is not responsive and less democratic. A second important and related question is if the supreme leadership’s power is absolute or limited in the Iranian system. A limited supreme leadership can be supervised and even removed by the Assembly of Experts, whereas an absolute one cannot. The upcoming election and the political makeup of the next assembly could thus have important consequences for both of these questions and Iran’s political future.
Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 76 years old, was operated on this past September 2015 and is believed by some to be in ill health. The Assembly of Experts elected in 2016 may very well be the one that chooses the next supreme leader given that each assembly sits for eight years. As of January 2016 the assembly had attracted 801 aspiring candidates, averaging over nine aspirants for each of its 88 seats. However, as of February it has been reported that only 166 aspirants have been approved by the Guardian Council to compete in the election, averaging just under two candidates per seat.
Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and seen as an up and coming figure in the moderate camp, has been disqualified by the Guardian Council from running for the assembly on grounds of lacking the religious credentials to be a jurist, though this decision may be reversed. Both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani have been qualified to run in the elections, meaning that moderates could still form an important bloc in the assembly. The relative votes for moderates like Rouhani and Hashemi-Rafsanjani versus conservatives like ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Yazdi will be seen as an important indicator of their social popularity, though it is unclear to what extent a moderate bloc will end up being in a position to actually select the next supreme leader by itself.