Two nationwide elections will be held in Iran on 26 February 2016. One is for the new Majles (parliament), and the second one for the Assembly of Experts, a Constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader. Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, the latter elections have always been viewed with indifference by the people, as the hardline clerics and their supporters believe that the people must be absolutely obedient to the Supreme Leader. However, the upcoming elections have suddenly taken on high importance. As I explain below, in due time the outcome of the elections for the Assembly will also be important to the West. The question is why have the elections for the Assembly become so important? There are at least ten reasons.
One is that there are widespread rumors and speculations about the health of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the possibility of his death in the near future. If he passes away, the Assembly must select his successor. Khamenei has ordered the Assembly to begin considering the qualifications of a few as his possible successor. Members of the Assembly are apparently doing so, but have said that they will only reveal to Khamenei the names of the possible candidates. Undoubtedly Khamenei will play the most important role in selecting his own successor.
A second reason is Khamenei’s absolute power. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is trying to change the composition of the Assembly by sending young clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandson Hassan Khomeini, to the Assembly so that they can influence the selection of Khamenei’s successor. Unlike previous elections, 801 persons, including sixteen women, have registered as candidates. This is nine times more than the required number of candidates, which is 88. The hardliners characterize Rafsanjani’s efforts as the “enemy’s plot” to be implemented by penetrating the structure of the regime.
Rafsanjani has also been speaking about the necessity of monitoring the performance of the Supreme Leader [which the Constitution mandates]. The hardliners have attacked him for expressing this view, even though Khamenei himself said in a speechon 28 February 2001 that,
Even the Supreme Leader is not beyond monitoring, let alone the organs [of state] that operate directly under him, because naturally governance implies accumulation of power and wealth, and thus monitoring is essential.
The third reason is the ongoing power struggle, which used to be between the conservatives and the reformists, but now includes the moderates and pragmatists such as Rafsanjani, President Hassan Rouhani, and their supporters who oppose the hardliners. Rouhani’s opponents accuse him of viewing the United States as the world’s “alderman” with which Iran must compromise. Hardliners in the Majles have claimed that the nuclear agreement between Iran and 5+1 is dangerous for the country and represents the first step by the United States to regain influence in Iran.
Another important reason is that Rafsanjani has been advocating the formation of a “leadership council” to replace the post of the Supreme Leader. When Iran’s Constitution was revised in 1989, the possibility of such a council was eliminated from its Article 107, but Rafsanjani has been speaking about the council, claiming that when the elder Khomeini passed away in 1989, both him and Khamenei favored the formation of such a council, but the idea was opposed by the majority of the Assembly at that time.
On December 18 Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, declared that the idea of a leadership council is the “enemy’s new trick” to destroy the unity of the people and the state and creating multiple voices for the supreme leader, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, adding, “No nation throughout history has had a leadership council [instead of a commander-in-chief] for its armed forces.”
The fifth reason is that since new faces who have differences with Khamenei and the hardliners have decided to run in the elections, disqualifying them from running by the Guardian Council, a Constitutional body that vets the candidates for almost all elections, will not be without political cost for the hardliners. Undoubtedly, the Council will disqualify many candidates using excuses. Rafsanjani said on December 20“the elections for the Assembly of Experts must be better than those for the Majles because the nation’s national security depends on it.The Council should not disqualify people en masse, in order for the conservatives to control the Assembly. If there is [unjustified] elimination [of the candidates] or fraud, the results of the elections will not be acceptable to the people, the credibility of the state will be hurt, and shortsighted [hardliners] will hurt the nation’s stability. It is dangerous to make people suspicious about the electoral process.”
Hardline cleric Ahmad Jannati, secretary-general of the Guardian Council, has claimed that those who protest the Council’s disqualifying of many candidates are part of a U.S. plot. In his Friday prayer sermon in Tehran on December 25 he spokeabout Francis Fukuyama’s article in the Wall Street Journal, Iran, Islam, and the Rule of Law, published in 2009, and claimed incorrectly that Fukuyama has told the U.S. officials that they should try to eliminate Velaayaat Faghih political system [Guardianship of the Supreme Leader, the backbone of Iran’s political system]. And to do so, according to Jannati’s lie about Fukuyama, the Guardian Council must be eliminated. In fact, Fukuyama has made no such statement in his article, even though he has several mistakes in his analysis, including confusing the Guardian Council with the Assembly of Expert, believing the Khamenei heads the Council, and the legal ability of the Council in firing Khamenei.
The sixth reason for the elections for the Assembly taking on additional importance is that, since the nuclear accord of last July Khamenei has been talking about the U.S. efforts to “infiltrate” Iran, hence giving his supporters the excuse to crack down on his opponents as the U.S. “influence agents.” Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the commander of the hardline Basij militia, said on December 17, “The U.S. may soon hold Friday prayers [in Iran to gain influence].” The Assembly’s Chairman, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, said on the same day, “The seminary students should not receive English currency [dollar]” [meaning not act as foreign agents]. GholamhosseinMohseni Ejei, the judiciary’s chief deputy and spokesman called Rafsanjani a “hypocrite” that has acted as the U.S. mouthpiece, and a man who prides himself on his friendship with the “enemy.” He then threatened, “I promise you that, with the help of the Basij, we will identify the hypocrites and the infiltration agents and give them the maximum punishment.” Thus, the conservatives’ competitors have been turned into the enemy’s agents.
The seventh reason is that hardline military leaders have begun expressing alarms over the elections for the Assembly. Major General Mohsen Rezaei, former IRGC chief, said on December 23, “The U.S. wants to influence the elections and arrange for the liberals to attract votes. Regarding the Assembly, [the U.S.] would like issues such as a leadership council [instead of the Supreme Leader] to be discussed so as to weaken the Supreme Leader.” Another former IRGC chief, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi who is also senior military adviser to Khamenei, said on December 5, “The next members of the Assembly must be from amongst those who took a revolutionary stance against the [college] students’ protest in 1999 and the Green Movement of 2009.”
The eighth reason for the significance of the elections for the Assembly is that, it appears as if Rafsanjani’s fate is tied to the elections. He was the most powerful politician after Ayatollah Khomeini during the first post-revolution decade. He wanted to run in the presidential elections of 2013, but the Guardian Council rejected him. Thus, the Council might again prevent him from running in the elections, or he might be put under house arrest (similar to former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majles Mehdi Karroubi). Alternatively, he might win the elections and become Chairman of the Assembly again, or become the leader of its minority.
If Rafsanjani, Hassan Khomeini and Rouhani are allowed to run in the elections for the Assembly, they will put together a list of candidates that they support with the pictures of the three on top of the banners and the list. If that happens, the hardliners will lose the elections. Thus, to prevent such an outcome, Khamenei and hardliners might be forced to prevent the three men from running in the elections.
The ninth reason is that the opposition to the hardliners has also decided to run in the elections, because they do not want Iran to become another Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Libya. The opposition prefers gradualreform for transition to democracy, believing that the upcoming elections represent a small but significant step toward the goal. Thus, they hope that, even if they cannot take control of the two elective bodies, they can eliminate the hardliners from them. Rouhani’s great achievement in foreign policy, namely, signing the nuclear agreement, should help the moderates and reformists to achieve their small but significant domestic goal.
Last, but not least, many Western governments are following the news to see what happens if he passes away, and who will be his successor. Will he have views similar to Khamenei’s regarding the West? If the memberships of the Assembly changes in favor of the moderates, will it pressure Khamenei to reconsider his views and take on more moderate and pragmatic positions?
These are important questions that will influence greatly the future of Iran and the Middle East.