- Iran’s Assembly of Experts voted March 8 to replace former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship. What happened and why is the outcome significant?
On March 8, the Assembly of Experts, effectively pushed former President Rafsanjani from the leadership of a top clerical body and replaced him with an ailing and elderly conservative. This is the latest setback for a man long considered to be one of Iran’s most resilient politicians. He lost the 2005 presidential contest to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as the 2000 parliamentary (majlis) election. He and his family have also been under increasing pressure since unrest erupted after the disputed 2009 presidential vote because he did not take a clear stance against the opposition Green Movement.
The Assembly of Experts is a pivotal body with constitutional authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, the most powerful position in Iran. Rafsanjani was first elected chairman in 2007 and reelected in 2009.
The election of conservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani returns the leadership of the Assembly to an elderly cleric without a political profile, the tradition before Rafsanjani’s election in 2007. But the leadership issue could soon rise again. Mahdavi Kani, 79, was reportedly brought into the chamber in a wheelchair.
Mahdavi Kani had not sought the chairmanship. He agreed to run only under tremendous pressure, which led Rafsanjani to withdraw his name as a candidate. In his speech to the Assembly, Rafsanjani said that he had asked Mahdavi Kani to run as chairman in 2009 and 2011 but the latter had refused due to illness and old age. In the end, Mahdavi Kani ran unopposed.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly played a background role. Without his pressure, Mahdavi Kani would not have run.
- Why did hardliners replace Rafsanjani, a pivotal political player since the 1979 Revolution? Had Rafsanjani’s chairmanship changed the Assembly of Experts?
Rafsanjani was elected chairman in 2007 after the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, who had led the Assembly since its inception in 1983. Rafsanjani’s election was the result of the first real contest for the post. He beat hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council. The vote was close in 2007 but hard-line clerics were unable to block Rafsanjani’s chairmanship and in 2009 he was reelected decisively.
The hardliners’ public push to replace Rafsanjani and support Mahdavi Kani reflects two things:
- First, it relays the message that trying to stand in the middle of Iran’s polarized political environment to moderate political cleavages is no longer acceptable—and will lead to sidelining if not a complete purge. Rafsanjani had not taken a clear position on the 2009 unrest. While publicly asserting his loyalty to Khamenei, he nevertheless continued to stand by his call for a more open political system and the need to redress some of the issues that prompted post-election protests.
- Second, hardliners were unable to win with a candidate of their own so they pressured a traditional conservative to head the body—at least temporarily.
Some Iranians had hoped Rafsanjani’s leadership of the Assembly would make the body more powerful in overseeing the conduct of the Supreme Leader, but he was not able to alter its operations or tone. Nor was there much change in the assembly’s routine statements of support for the leader at biannual meetings.
Rafsanjani has been critical of the country’s direction since the 2009 election, but he also made clear that he speaks only for himself, something he will continue to do irrespective of his loss of the chairmanship. He remains chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that mediates between parliament and the Guardian Council. In his speech to the Assembly on March 8, he criticized those who “think that they can solve problems with words and titles” and are also “trying to imprison the leader in one current.” Acknowledging that they “may benefit in the short run,” he nevertheless insisted that “by doing this they will harm the country, system, and even themselves in the long-run.”
- What is the Assembly of Experts? How many members does it have and how are they chosen? How often do they meet?
The Assembly of Experts for the Leadership is currently a body of more than eighty scholars of Islamic Law; the number has diminished due to deaths after the last election in 2006. Members are elected by direct public vote for eight-year terms from 30 electoral districts (provinces). Candidates do not need to be residents of or even to be born in the province from which they are elected. Although it did not begin this way, the Guardian Council must approve candidates’ eligibility through written and oral examinations if their religious credentials are “not evident” or “explicitly or implicitly approved by the Supreme Leader.”
Its bylaws require that the Assembly meet twice a year. Sessions are usually two days long but minutes of meetings are confidential. Assembly members are not restricted in their engagement with other occupations, such as membership in parliament or the judiciary. As a result, several members have also served in other branches of government.
Organizationally, the Assembly has a leadership and six committees. The leadership is elected by secret ballot for two years and consists of the Assembly’s chair, two vice-chairs, two secretaries, and two assistants.
- Has the Assembly of Experts ever criticized or challenged the supreme leader for anything?
In the Constitution, the Assembly is tasked with two functions:
- Selecting the leader
- Dismissing him if he is unable to perform his constitutional duties or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the initial qualifications such as “social and political wisdom, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership.”
In its bylaws, the Assembly is tasked to supervise the leader’s capabilities to determine whether he is able to perform his duties. It also has a committee to oversee “the continuation of qualifications for the leader specified in the constitution.” But the bylaws also state that the Assembly does not see this supervision to be “in contradiction to absolute guardianship.” So legally, the mandate is ambiguous about how much the Assembly can challenge the leader about his actions or conduct if he does not show signs of incapacity or lacks qualifications. In practice, the Assembly has never challenged or criticized the leader, although individual members have expressed their concerns about the country’s direction. Given the Guardian Council’s vetting process since 1991, the majority of the Assembly’s members have effectively been vetted before they run to ensure they are committed followers of the leader and not interested in a more dynamic supervisory role.
- What role does the Assembly of Experts play in Iranian politics today? How does its role compare to what was envisioned in the post-revolutionary constitution?
The Assembly of Experts was envisioned to be an elected clerical body that acts as a check on the leader in case of mental or physical incapacitation or deterioration. It is also tasked with the responsibility of choosing the leader in case of incapacitation or death. As such, it is designed to become a very important body during periods of transition as it did in 1989 when the then Hojattoleslam Ali Khamenei was quickly chosen as the leader after the sudden death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
After the June 2009 presidential election, some Iranians hoped that the Assembly would make an effort to question decisions made by Ayatollah Khamenei that have moved the country towards increased authoritarianism. But the body has never tried to check Khamenei’s decisions.
- What are the political views of the Assembly of Experts’ members in the Islamic Republic?
The assembly was not designed to reflect political views, although members have different political tendencies. Because of the vetting process and written examinations, most high-ranking clerics from the reformist camp have either been disqualified or refused to take part in a vetting process. The Assembly is currently divided largely between traditional and hard-line conservatives, with traditional conservatives still in the majority. The internal balance of power is why only a senior conservative figure such as Mahdavi Kani could dislodge Rafsanjani at this time.
Mahdavi Kani heads the Combatant Clergy Association. He is also in the founder and current head of Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, a university specializing in humanities. It is also a training ground for many government officials. He also served as interim prime Minister in 1981.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.