Tel Aviv – Israel: The world is still catching its breath after the tumultuous events of Iran’s last elections held only six months ago in June 2005. To many it seems too soon to stat talking about the next set of Iranian elections.
Nevertheless, 2006 promises to be another year of voting for the Iranian electorate.
This time the voters will be going to the ballot box to choose the members of the Assembly of Experts, known in Farsi as Majlese Khobregan.
This 86 member body can best be likened to Vatican’s College of Cardinals. Its main job is to appoint Iran’s Supreme leader, supervise his performance, and if it deems suitable, dismiss him.
According to the constitution, the Assembly is to meet at least once a year, in the city of Qom. Although in reality meetings are held every six months and in Tehran, not Qom, as majority of the Assembly’s members hold other political positions which are based in the nation’s capital.
Due to the sensitive nature of its task, the Assembly of Experts is a secretive organisation, where no reports from its findings are provided to the Iranian public.
According to the election procedures, all candidates who wish to participate in the elections for the Assembly of Experts are to be clerics. This is due to the fact that Iran’s political system known as Velayete Faqih, is based on governance by Islamic Jurists. According to the concepts of the Velayete Faqih, as enshrined in Iran’s constitution, the appointed leader of the jurists is also responsible as supreme leader for running the affairs of the country, in accordance to Islamic Shiite principles and laws.
Therefore in order to enable the Assembly of Experts to choose a candidate with suitable religious credentials for the position of supreme leader, the Assembly’s members themselves need to be learned and experienced Ayatollahs.
According to the existing laws, all clerics who wish to be considered as candidates in the elections for Assembly of Experts must show relative “ejtehad”. This qualification permits an Islamic cleric with the religious authority to interpret Islamic law.
Once the candidates have passed the clerical requirements, they are then vetted by the all powerful Council of Guardians (Shoraye Negahban). It must be noted that the Council of Guardians is responsible to vet the political suitability of candidates in all of Iran’s public elections, which are the Parliamentary elections, as well as Presidential and Assembly of Experts elections.
Elections for the Assembly are held every eight years. The current head of the Assembly is Ayatollah Meshkini, the renowned anti – Western politician cleric who recently referred to Britain and the US as “cancerous growths”.
Throughout the history of the Islamic republic of Iran, the Assembly has
made a number of major contributions to the revolution, two of which stand out the most.
First one was to convert Ayatollah Khoemeini’s wish of turning his idea of “introducing Islam to the state” into a reality. The Assembly of Experts did this by becoming a major contributor to the design of Iran’s post revolution constitution. The constitution, at least in theory, is the manual for the management of Iran under a political system ruled by Shiite Islamic teachings, headed by a faqih (head of all scholar jurists).
The second major contribution of the Assembly of Experts to the Islamic revolution was the efficient handling of Khamenei’s ascent to the post of supreme leader, after the death of the revolution’s founder and first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
To many outsiders Khamanei’s ascend to the position of supreme leader was regarded as a rubber stamp procedure.
However in reality, in 1989 the constitution of the Islamic Republic had to be amended for this to happen. This is because in terms of religious credentials required for the post of the revolution’s supreme leader and faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei was not suitable. His credentials were below minimum requirements set by the constitution as Khamenei is not recognised as a “Mujtahed” the Shiite equivalent to Phd in law. This means that he can not even issue a fatwa.
Therefore to enable Ayatollah Khamenei, an Ayatollah with religious credentials below the minimum requirements to become the leader of the Islamic Republic, the Assembly of Experts agreed to lower its religious entry standards for the position of supreme leader.
Although the organisation itself was under pressure to agree to Khamenei’s nomination and acceptance as supreme leader, nevertheless there was opposition from within the Assembly to nominate a cleric with higher religious credentials. The fact that the Assembly managed to carry out this controversial move without endangering or putting into question the legitimacy of the revolution and the Velayate Faqih is considered as a major contribution of the Assembly of Experts to the stability of the regime.
The motivations behind the nomination and election of Khamenei, who was less religiously qualified and more unknown compared to his rival Ayatollah Montazeri are very similar to the motivations behind the leadership’s recent choice and backing of another more unknown figure in the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Rafsanjani. The biggest reason in both cases was loyalty.
In the face of growing problems in Iran in 1989 (upon the nomination of Khamenei) and in 2005 (upon the nomination of Ahmadinejad), unquestioning loyalty to the system overrode other credentials. Although this phenomenon has not been the case in every election (such as the twice election of the reformist Ayatollah Khatami), nevertheless this is a phenomenon which has and will repeat itself when the regime feels that it is about to enter a difficult phase.
Meanwhile the Assembly of Experts still faces a number of challenges.
One of them is the increasing number of calls within its ranks to raise the religious entry level for its candidates. Whether or not that happens is very likely to depend on the quality of candidates which the change will bring, and how likely they will affect the political machinations and performance of the regime.
The Assembly is also likely to try and ensure that other hardliners are kept out of the race for the position of next supreme leader. With existing conservatives such as Ayatollah Meshkini at its helm, some may ask, and rightly so, as to why the Assembly of Experts would want to keep hardliners out?
Ayatollah Khamenei, and other powerful figures such as Rafsanjani (deputy chairman of Assembly of Experts) would be wary of giving all the levers of the revolution to just one faction, especially one which may alienate other parts of the regime completely, as ultra conservatives would. Ayatollah Khamenei already made this mistake by giving too much power to new generation of ultra conservatives from the Revolutionary Guards headed by Ahmadinejad.
This was later corrected by appointing Ahmadinejad’s arch rival Ayatollah Rafsanjani to the powerful position of Head of the Expediency Council, to ensure that Ahmadinejad’s actions in the internal arena are kept in check. Letting ultra conservatives control all the levers in the Assembly of Experts would have much bigger consequences, due to the Assembly’s all important task of being in charge of choosing the next supreme leader of Iran.
This is not to say that the task of keeping the hardliners out of the Assembly of Experts is going to be easy.
The emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the internal political scene has increased a profile of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor. According to a number of reports Mesbah Yazdi is preparing the ground for his nomination to the Assembly of Experts as Iran’s next supreme leader.
A former student of Ayatollah Khomeini, Mesbah Yazdi is the director of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in the holy Shiite city of Qom. He is also one of the founders of the influential Haghani religious institute, which amongst its students counts a number of ministers in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet as well as other influential figures such as three former and present heads of the Ministry of Intelligence, including Ali Fallahian, Ali Younesi, as well as Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ezhei.
A devout believer in the return of the Shiite Messiah Mahdi, it is believed that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi is the head of the Hojatieh Society, which advocates activities which will speed up the return of the Mahdi. Declarations such as his comments on 5th of January 2006 that “there is no logic in allowing the public to vote in a God driven system such as Iran’s Velaye Faqih”, Mesbah Yazdi has earned the nickname of Professor Crocodile. This is a befitting description as with his outlandish right wing remarks, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi makes other prominent conservative Ayatollahs sound like shrinking violets.
What should worry Khamenei is the fact that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi counts Ayatollah Jannati as a close friend and ally. Ayatollah Jannati helped Mesbah Yazdi establish the Haghani religious institution. He then attended the institution as one of Mesbah Yazdi’s students.
Ayatollah Jannati is a powerful ally for any Iranian politician, especially one with aspirations to become Iran’s next supreme leader. This is because Ayatollah Jannati is the head of the Guardian Council, one of the most powerful bodies in Iranian politics which as mentioned before, is in charge of vetting candidates for the Assembly of Experts. Jannati can help Mesbah Yazdi by calling for the disqualification of Assembly of Experts candidates, who would stand in the way of Mesbah Yazdi being nominated as the next supreme leader.
Although Jannati would not be able to do this single handed, and would face opposition from Rafsanjani and Khamenei, nevertheless he has the power to take some important steps in the Guardian Council for those he considers as allies. Whether he succeeds or not depends on the opposition from Khamenei. Such opposition is expected to be considerable, and unignorable for Jannati, especially as Iran will find itself more and more isolated internationally due to the expected breakdown in the nuclear talks with the EU, as foreseen by meepas, and other analysts.
Meanwhile Ayatollah Khamenei has his work cut out for him. Mesbah Yazdi’s popularity has been rising steadily since he issued a fatwa in support of Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid. Putting difficulties created by Mesbah Yazdi’s popularity aside, the very fact that Mesbah Yazdi can issue a fatwa, whilst religiously speaking Khamenei can not, puts Mesbah Yazdi in the eyes of many clerics above Khamenei.
Although the date for the election of Assembly of Expert members has not been officially declared yet (July or October 2006 have been suggested), in Iran’s evolving world of politics, the next election for the Assembly will have important consequences for the future direction of the politics of the Islamic Republic. Should ultra hardliners gain a more prominent position in the next Assembly, the Iranian public, and the West can take it as a sign that dealing with the Iranian government will become even more burdensome.
About Meir Javedanfar is a Middle East Analyst and the Director or the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, meepas.com. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC, Radio Holland International, Haaretz Newspaper and the Boston Globe as well as a number of other newspapers and Radio stations. For rights to quote this article please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.