by Small Media
Later this month, Iranians will vote in the first elections since the 2013 presidential elections that swept Hassan Rouhani into office. In our previous blog post we showed how the parliamentary elections on February 26 are pretty much fixed in favor of Iran’s conservative establishment, with thousands of candidates being locked out of the race by Iran’s Guardian Council.
But parliamentary elections aren’t the only ones taking place on February 26. Iranians will also get the chance to vote in elections for the Assembly of Experts—a senior body of clerics responsible for choosing Iran’s next Supreme Leader.
Given the Assembly’s crucial role in determining the future of the Islamic Republic, it might not come as a massive shock to learn that these elections are pretty much fixed, too. Indeed, the Guardian Council’s aggressive purging of Assembly of Expert candidates has proven one of the most dramatic stories of the 2016 elections so far. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.
Contenders for the Assembly of Experts
The Assembly of Experts is an 86-member body of clerics responsible for overseeing the activities of the Supreme Leader and picking his successor. It’s home to some of the most influential names in Iranian politics today, and will play a central role in deciding the future of the country post-Khamenei.
It’s very much an election for the establishment—Iran’s President (Hassan Rouhani), Chief Justice (Sadeq Larijani), and Guardian Council chairman (Ahmad Jannati) are all standing. As such, Assembly elections are a good measure for understanding the balance of power at the top of Iran’s political system.
Our friends at Majlis Monitor have provided a great introduction to the Assembly’s powers and responsibilities:
So who are some of the most important candidates standing for office this time around? Let’s meet a few of the biggest names.
President Rouhani may not be running for re-election to the presidency this year, but he’s hoping to renew his membership of the Assembly of Experts, where he first won a seat in 2000.
Rouhani is standing for the moderately competitive seat of Tehran. Although he is likely to cruise to victory himself, it‘s so far unclear how many fellow moderates he’ll be able to bring with him to the Assembly. As we’ll show below, the conservative Guardian Council have done a very thorough job of stacking the odds against Rouhani’s moderate coalition.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
A fixture on the Assembly of Experts since it opened in 1983, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has proven himself to be an astute and wily political operator over the years. Originally a close confidant of Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani’s presidency from 1989–1997 was marked by political authoritarianism, economic liberalization, and numerous allegations of corruption.
As his relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei soured, Rafsanjani reinvented himself as a champion of reform-leaning moderates in the political establishment. Things haven’t been going so well lately: since being toppled as Assembly chairman in 2011, Rafsanjani has spent a couple of years in the political wilderness.
However, his recent comments about replacing the Supreme Leader’s office with a Leadership Council, and his harsh denunciation of the Guardian Council’s election disqualifications have demonstrated that the old “shark” of Iranian politics is still swimming, and will continue to play an influential role for years to come.
Interestingly, Farideh Farhi at LobeLog has suggested that a Rafsanjani and Rouhani-led candidate list in Tehran might even be able to lock prominent conservatives out of the race in the province. Is this a long shot? Perhaps, but Rafsanjani is a true master of the dark political arts, and should never be underestimated.
Iran’s Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani is a traditional conservative closely aligned with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Although he has been a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1998, he has taken a vocal role in talking down the body’s powers and responsibilities.
After Rafsanjani caused a stir by restating the Assembly’s powers to oversee the activities of the Supreme Leader’s office, Larijani intervened to state that the Assembly’s powers started and ended at the selection of the Supreme Leader, and that supervisory powers were limited (contradicting the Iranian Constitution in the process).
Famed for such lines as: “It doesn’t matter what the people think. The people are ignorant sheep,” and “Islam was the government of God, not the government of the people,” Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi’s contempt for democratic politics is well-established.
A high-profile backer of President Ahmadinejad in his first term, Mesbah-Yazdi was an influential figure in conservative politics until 2013. With the ascension of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency, Mesbah-Yazdi lost most of his allies in government. He maintains influence in the Assembly of Experts, however, and will certainly move to block any moderate or reformist candidates for the Supreme Leader’s position in the coming years.
The 43-year-old grandson of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini perhaps makes for an unlikely champion of the reformist camp. Nonetheless, his high-profile clashes with Ahmadinejad, and support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s claims of election fraud in 2009 have won him a great deal of respect from reformist politicians and voters. Moreover, his surname has insulated him from a lot of conservative and hardliner criticism.
Until now, that is. In mid-December, Hassan Khomeini applied to run in the 2016 Assembly of Experts elections. In late January his family confirmed that his application had been rejected by the Guardian Council. Although he appealed the decision, Khomeini noted that it was unlikely to “open a new path”. He was right—the appeal was rejected on February 10, but the high-profile row has dealt a blow to the authority and legitimacy of the Guardian Council.
A Select Few
The extent of election meddling in the Assembly of Experts is almost enough to make the parliamentary elections look like a free and fair vote. Out of 801 candidates standing, just 166 made the cut. That’s just a little under 22% of applicants, including a number of reformers like Hassan Khomeini.
Competition is incredibly limited in the vast majority of provinces. Six provinces—Ardabil, Azerbaijan West, Bushehr, Hormozgan, Khorasan North and Semnan—have as many qualified candidates as there are Assembly seats, meaning that voters have absolutely no say in who represents them on the Assembly of Experts.
It’s also worth noting that out of 16 female applicants for the Assembly, not a single one was qualified by the Guardian Council. The phrase ‘old boys club’ comes to mind (especially given that the average age of members in the current Assembly is 71).
The Establishment Triumphant
To summarize, the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections are unlikely to result in any significant shifts in the balance of power at the top levels of the Iranian political and clerical establishment. Reformists have been comprehensively weeded out of the electoral process, leaving a number of elections totally uncompetitive.
The best hope for reformists and moderates is that Rouhani and Rafsanjani can work together to build a winning coalition of moderates in Tehran, and that moderates can pick up a handful of other competitive seats scattered around the country. However, it appears unlikely that even a strong showing from moderates will seriously threaten the dominance of conservatives and hardliners in the Assembly. The game is rigged.