Hardline Clerics Take the Helm of the Assembly of Experts

Ayatollah Yazdi

by Saeed Aganji and Pupak Mohebali

According to Article 107 of Iran’s constitution, the Assembly of Experts for Leadership has the responsibility to elect and dismiss Iran’s Supreme Leader and supervise his activities. This entity does not work according to the provisions of the other branches (executive, legislative, judicial). Rather, it directly determines and implements the internal rules of governance.

Following the death of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the chair of the Assembly of Experts, on October 21, 2014, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi took office temporarily as his successor. However, in the elections held this week on March 10, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi was chosen as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts with 47 of the 73 votes. A hardline cleric, Ayatollah Yazdi holds views similar to those of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a typical judgment issued for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance a few days before the elections, Ayatollah Yazdi said, for instance, that “music is forbidden in Islam.”

Given the age and health of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as the imminent possibility of his death, electing the chairman of the Assembly of Experts is of utmost importance. On the other hand, Ayatollah Yazdi will hold the post for just one year because elections for the Assembly of Experts, scheduled alongside next year’s parliamentary polls, will produce a new chairman.

The Role of the Assembly

Ayatollah Dorri Najaf-Abadi, board chairman of the Assembly of Experts, said recently that it is necessary to think about the successor of Ayatollah Khamenei. The discussion about designating a successor has been a frequent topic in political circles as well. Appointing the new chairman for the Assembly of Experts is extremely influential because the chairman will preside over the decision to appoint a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei when he passes away—or he might opt instead to appoint a consultative leadership committee. In 1989, for instance, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani chose Ayatollah Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader.

In addition, next year Iran will hold elections to appoint members of the Assembly of Experts, which will hold considerable importance for domestic political movements. The political party allocated the most seats in the Assembly of Experts has a significant role in appointing Iran’s future Supreme Leader. To increase their influence in next year’s election, political parties prefer the chairman of the Assembly of Experts to be elected from parties close to them on the political spectrum.

By electing Ayatollah Yazdi as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the hardline clerics with views close to the Supreme Leader won this stage by overtaking the moderate clerics. In so doing, they have the power to pursue their own policies, at least for the following year.

On the other hand, Ayatollah Yazdi and his followers do not have good ties with the current Iranian government. Yazdi warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani several times to base his speeches and attitudes on Imam Khomeini’s ideals. “You should know it is the Supreme Leader’s confirmation that legitimizes people’s trust in you,” Yazdi said to the president.

The political movement that takes the role of leadership of the Assembly of Experts will no doubt play a very significant role in deciding Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor and in potentially changing the political balance in the country. This would also affect Iran’s relations with the West because the Assembly of Experts is in charge of electing the future Supreme Leader of Iran or shifting the leadership from a single individual to the collective decision-making of a Leadership Council. 

The Impact of Khamenei

Ayatollah Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s nuclear dossier, his support of extremist political movements, and his backing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president have caused various problems for Iran. These problems include crippling sanctions, economic problems, difficulties in diplomatic relations with other countries, internal political conflicts such as the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests, and the prioritizing of security issues and functions in the country.

The Assembly of Experts is an independent body that codifies its own rules and regulations. The Assembly needs the final approval of neither the Guardian Council nor the Supreme Leader for their legislation—unlike the legislation of the Expediency Council, which needs the Supreme Leader’s final confirmation.

However, since its early formation, the Assembly of Experts has acted as a quasi-appointed entity. Thus, commitment and not expertise has been a prerequisite for the election of its members. Therefore, the majority of its members in 1982 were from the Islamic Republic Party, the mainstream political party at that time.

After the appointment of Ayatollah Khamenei as the successor to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeini on June 3, 1989, the Assembly of Experts relinquished much of its authority. It became a subservient entity with a primarily ceremonial position, extending the Supreme Leader’s letter of credit every once in a while.

The Marginalization of Critics

Since the establishment of the Assembly of Experts, its members have never criticized Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies and have repeatedly praised him. If any individual members of the Assembly criticize the Supreme Leader’s policies, they face strong objections from other members.

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, a member of the Assembly of Experts, criticized the Supreme Leader’s policies toward his opposition following the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and the widespread arrest of political activists. To show their loyalty to Ayatollah Khamenei and their objection to Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, other members of the Assembly did not invite Dastgheib to the next sessions.

Whenever the Supreme Leader seeks legitimacy, the Assembly of Experts issues a statement, such as the 2009 statement in support of his policies dealing with protestors, which included the killing of several protesters by security forces and the arrest of many others.

Electing a moderate as Iran’s future Supreme Leader can change the general policies of the Islamic Republic in its diplomatic ties with the U.S. and the West. Once again, the political groups with close ties with Ayatollah Khamenei have the authority over the Assembly of Experts’ decisions. At least for a year they will support the Supreme Leader unconditionally. Whether the moderate clerics can take the helm in the next year’s elections and change the current policies, at least to a small extent, remains to be seen.

Photo: Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi

Saeed Aganji is an Iranian journalist, researcher, and former editor-in-chief of the Saba student publication. Pupak Mohebali is a Ph.D. candidate in international security and a teaching assistant in the Department of Politics, University of York, UK. She earned her M.A. in international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University, Iran. Currently she conducts her doctoral research on the impact of Iranian elite conceptions of national identity on decisions affecting Iran’s nuclear program and E3+3 nuclear negotiations.

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