February 04, 2016

Moderates face uphill battle in Assembly of Experts

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s allies are losing one election even before any votes have been cast. Reformists and pragmatists generally aligned with Rouhani have been hoping to gain a solid bloc of supporters in the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will likely select the next supreme leader in the course of its eight-year term. Reformists might have done well at the polls later this month if they had been allowed to run, but the Guardian Council, which is loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disqualified most of them.[1] The contours of the next Assembly of Experts are thus becoming clear weeks in advance of the polling—and those contours are shaping for a conservative body likely to select a new supreme leader in a similar ideological mold as the incumbent. A reforming wave is not about to engulf the Islamic Republic.

Iranian media outlets have published the semifinal list of approved candidates for the Assembly of Experts. The list is semifinal because the Guardian Council is currently reviewing appeals from candidates who were disqualified in late January and will release a final list of candidates by February 9.[2] The Guardian Council has historically refused to reverse a significant number of its own disqualification decisions, however, so this list is a reliable indicator of what the final pool of candidates will look like.

Many hope that a moderate-pragmatic bloc led by Rouhani and Expediency Discernment Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani could emerge in the upcoming Assembly of Experts.[3] Such a bloc could challenge the hardliners’ hold on the Assembly and play an important role in shaping the next succession toward a more moderate supreme leader. Rafsanjani has even floated the idea of having a committee replace Khamenei, which might weaken the theocratic nature of the regime and allow the elected government more control over the actual doings of the country. Conservatives harshly attacked Rafsanjani for making that suggestion, and it seems clear that the next Assembly of Experts will not support it.[4] Iran’s current theocratic structure is likely to remain intact for at least one more succession.

The Guardian Council disqualified a number of prominent clerics as part of its efforts to keep reformist-inclined candidates out. The most notable disqualification was that of Hojjat ol Eslam Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who could have been a valuable and high-profile ally to President Hassan Rouhani. The Guardian Council also rejected several other prominent moderate candidates, including Mohammad Mousavi Bojnourdi, Khomeini’s father-in-law; Majid Ansari, one of Rouhani’s current vice-presidents; and Rasoul Montajab Nia, the deputy secretary general of the Reformist National Trust Party.[5] Hassan Khomeini is formally appealing his disqualification, although he has admitted that the Guardian Council is unlikely to reverse its decision.[6]>

Nine of the 88 members of the new Assembly can already be identified from the preliminary list released by the Guardian Council. The number of vetted candidates equaled the number of seats in six of the electoral districts after the Guardian Council’s first review, essentially guaranteeing that these candidates will be elected to the Assembly unless some of the disqualifications in these districts are overturned.[7] Eight of these nine members have ties to the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, a prominent conservative body that forms the backbone of the conservative clerical network in Iran.[8] Its members include many of the regime’s old guard, such as Guardian Council Secretary Ahmad Jannati and Assembly of Experts Chairman Mohammad Yazdi. Several of these members are also Khamenei’s representatives to their respective provinces. These clerics are not natural allies of Rouhani or Rafsanjani, to say the least.

Rouhani can breathe a sigh of relief, however, since the Guardian Council did accept his own candidacy for the Assembly of Experts.[9] The Guardian Council also approved Rafsanjani to run, despite rumors that it might disqualify him.[10] Rafsanjani and Rouhani will still need a significant number of moderates to challenge the hardliners’ dominance, a prospect that looks dimmer than ever.


[1] “Entekhabaat-e khebregan va ruzaneh-haye moqabeleh ba hezhemuny-e khamenei” [The Assembly of Experts elections and openings against Khamenei’s power], Radio Farda, February 2, 2016. Available in Persian: http://www.radiofarda.com/content/f35_iran_elections_comm_afshari/27526761.html.
[2] Caitlin Shayda Pendleton and Paul Bucala, “Iran’s 2016 elections: The process, the players, and the stakes,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, January 12, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/pendleton-bucala-irans-2016-elections-process-players-stakes-january-12-2016.
[3] “Ali Motahari: movafegh-e kanadidtouri-e seyyed hassan khomeini hastam / Hashemi ghaveh-ye ‘aghele-ye majles-e khobregan” [Ali Motahari: I approve of Hassan Khomeini’s candidacy / Hashemi is the rational power of the Assembly of Experts], Entekhab, September 8, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www(.)entekhab(.)ir/fa/news/224793 and Arash Karami, “Who will choose Iran’s next supreme leader?,” al-Monitor, December 21, 2015. Available: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/rouhani-rafsanjani-assembly-elections-khamenei-leader.html
[4] Iran News Round Up, December 14, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, December 14, 2015. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-december-14-2015
[5] “Iran News Round Up, January 27, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, January 27, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-january-27-2016, and “Elam-e esami-e rad salahiyat shode-ha va ehraz salahiyat nashode-haye khebregan” [The announcement of names for rejected candidates and candidates who do not possess qualifications], Tabnak, January 26, 2016. Available in Persian: https://www(.)tabnak(.)ir/fa/news/563521/%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D8%B5%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%B4%D8%AF%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7-%D9%88-%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B5%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D9%86%D8%B4%D8%AF%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1%DA%AF%D8%A7%D9%86.
[6] Iran News Round Up, January 29, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, January 29, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-january-29-2016
[7] The following candidates are running unopposed in the elections: Ali Akbar Ghoreyshi, Asghar Dirbaz, and Abbas Shah Rafaeti in West Azerbaijan province; Hassan Ameli and Fajraldin Mousavi Nanehkaran in Ardabil; Hashem Hosseini Bushehri in Bushehr province; Habibollah Mehmannavaz in North Khorasan province; Mohammad Shahcheragi in Semnan province; and Gholam Ali Na’im Abadi in Hormozgan province. See “Esmami-e naamzadhaa-ye taidshode-ye majles-e khobregan-e rahbari be tafkik-e ostan + jadval” [Names of confirmed candidates for the Assembly of Experts by province + table], Fars News Agency, January 31, 2016. Available in Persian: http://www(.)farsnews(.)com/newstext.php?nn=13941110000524
[8] For more information on relations between President Hassan Rouhani and the Society of Qom Seminary teachers see Ruhollah Faghighi, “Rouhani wins over Qom for now” al-Monitor, March 13, 2015. Available: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/iran-rouhani-qom-nuclear-talks-cultural-policy.html
[9] “Iran News Round Up, January 28, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, January 28, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-january-28-2016.
[10] “Khabargozaari mojh: salahiyat-e hashemi ta’yeed nakhohad shod” [Mojh News: Hashemi’s qualifications will not be confirmed], Digarban, December 30, 2015. Available in Persian: https://www(.)digarban(.)com/node/23439.
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