The Assembly of Experts
24 Jun 2009 19:29
Rafsanjani and the Leadership
The Iranian Constitution is a roadmap in which all roads lead to the Supreme Leader. He exercises control over all branches of the government and every division of the armed forces. He is appointed to the position for life, and his power is tied to age-old traditions of leadership in Shiite Islam. And yet, a single constitutional body can theoretically exercise ultimate power over the position of the Leader. That body is the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member council trusted with the responsibility to elect, and even dismiss, the Supreme Leader.
The first Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, never needed the Assembly, having gained his position through his role in the 1979 Revolution. It was the Assembly of Experts, however, that elected Ayatollah Khamenei, the current Leader, nearly two decades ago. It was a controversial choice, as Khamenei was not yet an Ayatollah, and lacking a major qualification for the position. Since then, the Assembly has existed as a virtually inactive body, meeting twice a year and releasing statements expressing satisfaction with its one, extremely important decision. Today, however, the Assembly once again is the center of attention, as it is perhaps the last governmental body not controlled by the supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the powerful faction that has led his 'election coup' in Iran.
To better understand the current role of the Assembly of Experts, some background information is required.
In 2005, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani lost a lack-luster election to Ahmadinejad, a little-known provincial governor who had recently become the mayor of Tehran. Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karrubi, another candidate in those elections, strongly implied that they had lost due to widespread electoral fraud. Karrubi, who a few hours into the counting of the votes seemed to be heading for a run-off with Rafsanjani, famously remarked that he had closed his eyes for a siesta and woken up to discover that Ahmadinejad was now leading him in the polls. Nonetheless, the election results were certified and the defeated candidates accepted the outcome.
Ahmadinjed came to power with the backing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and the Basij paramilitary units. These two divisions of the armed forces, unlike the Iranian Army which remains outside the cities, are ideological groups present in all urban and rural regions of the country. Ahmadinjead and some members of his cabinet have belonged to various ranks of the IRGC. They wield an ultra-conservative rhetoric, and many of them are students of a powerful, shadowy cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who has been linked to a series of publicized political chain-murders. Soon after the 2005 elections, reformist politicians and those close to Rafsanjani began warning that a "Talibanite" faction, the students of Mesbah Yazdi, had begun a systematic takeover of every aspect of the IRGC and the government.
Understanding the connection between Ahmadinejad, Mesbah Yazdi, and the higher ranks of the IRGC is imperative to understanding the current situation in Iran. Information on the topic is particularly sparse, because Mesbah Yazdi is not well-known to the Western media. Muhammad Sahimi has described the relationship in clear detail in his article The Leaders of Iran's 'Election Coup.' Suffice it to say here that Mesbah Yazdi is the confirmed religious leader of the faction supporting Ahmadinejad, he is openly opposed to any democratic aspect of the Islamic Republic, and he is rumored to entertain the ambition of one day assuming the position of the Supreme Leader.
Yet just when it seemed that Rafsanjani's political life could be over, he made an unexpected gambit. In 2006, he nominated himself to the Assembly of Experts and was elected as the first candidate from the district of Tehran. Mesbah Yazdi, also nominated, earned half as many votes as Rafsanjani, though just enough to get elected.
Elections for the Assembly of Experts are a rare occurrence -- they are held every eight years and with minor pomp. As with other elected bodies, all candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, with the additional requirement that they must also prove their mastery of Islamic law and jurisprudence. Very few fit the bill, even though the theological standards have been lowered a few times. Both Rafsanjani and Mesbah Yazdi tried to get as many loyal candidates as they could into the Assembly. When the results were announced, it seemed that victory was with the so-called "pragmatic" camp associated with Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani's success was confirmed a year later when Ayatollah Meshkini, the elderly, de-facto chairman of the Assembly passed away, and Rafsanjani nominated himself for the position. Mesbah nominated himself as well, but then withdrew in favor of Jannati, a more popular cleric who is also the head of the Guardian Council. Out of the 80 votes cast, Rafsanjani won 46, thus becoming the chairman. When the Assembly held its next board election two years later, Rafsanjani performed even better, gaining 51 votes, while two members abstained.
Why did the group siding with Mesbah Yazdi not manage to control the Assembly? The most important reason is that Mesbah Yazdi, an ultra conservative (he has openly labeled as non-Islamic such concepts as election, freedom of political parties, and human rights) is not supported by most other prominent conservative clerics. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini himself was so mistrustful of Mesbah Yazdi and those around him that he banned their organization, the Hojjatiyeh Society. It was only after Khomeini's death that members of Hojjatiyeh managed to rise to the higher positions of the government. Mesbah Yazdi preaches a government in which the Supreme Leader (vali-e faqih) is in sole control of all aspects of life. Though endearing to Ayatollah Khamenei, the idea does not please other clerics who see themselves as entitled to a share of the power. So few prominent clerics belong to Mesbah's faction, that during the 2006 election for the Assembly his camp nominated less than 20 candidates altogether.
Another reason for Mesbah's disappointment is Rafsanjani's power and influence, based on his long revolutionary history and bolstered by his immense wealth and connections. He did manage to nominate close allies to the Assembly, chief among them Hassan Rouhani, who is connected to the Iranian Army, as opposed to the IRGC. Rafsanjani has also struck a tenuous alliance with another member, Shahroudi, who is the head of Iran's judiciary branch as well as the Assembly's vice-chairman. As long as Rafsanjani is in place, Mesbah Yazdi, who is also the only member of his faction somewhat qualified to ascend to the position of the Supreme Leader, will have a very hard time controlling the Assembly.
It has become obvious to the supporters of Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmadinejad that Rafsanjani's power must be quickly checked, diminished, or even eliminated. Rafsanjani's political demise could also release from his family's hold certain profitable economic sectors. The conflict was made apparent when Ahmadinejad finally broke all decorum during his televised presidential debate with Mousavi, and openly accused Rafsanjani, a chief Mousavi supporter, of corruption. The accusation was a declaration of war -- and after Ahmadinejad's rigging of the presidential elections, Rafsanjani is by far the weaker side of the battle.
As Tehran and other cities erupt in protests against Ahamdinejad, it is rumored that Rafsanjani, who has kept quiet since the elections, has traveled to the religious city of Qom to confer with those clerics who oppose Mesbah Yazdi's complete takeover. Every day in Iran new speculations emerge regarding Rafsanjani's dealings with the Assembly. Websites supporting Ahmadinejad released the rumor that Rafsanjani has resigned his position (his son has dismissed the claim.) Some say he has managed to enlist the support of the majority of the Assembly's members, while others report that he has returned from Qom, defeated.
There is a reason why the topic engenders such varied conjectures and attracts such intense attention. According to article 111 of the Iranian Constitution, whenever the Leader becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties, or loses one of the qualifications of Leadership, or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the qualifications to begin with, he can be dismissed. These qualifications consist of mastery of Islamic jurisprudence, justice and piety, and "the right political and social perspicacity, courage, and prudence." The power to make the decision for dismissal lies with the Assembly of Experts.
A specific commission within the Assembly is responsible for receiving and reviewing complaints submitted by members. Should the commission find the case to be of sufficient merit, it can call a meeting of the general Assembly. If, however, the commission decides to discard the case, a majority of the members can still call for an emergency meeting. All these proceedings are to be conducted in complete secrecy.
It is highly unlikely that Rafsanjani would be able to push for a dismissal under current conditions. Although he may have gained the votes of the majority of the members in the Assembly's board elections, there is no indication that the same members would support removing Ayatollah Khamenei from power and risking the wrath of the IRGC. Such a move would utterly destabilize the regime, to which many of the clerics have tied their fortunes. It is a high price to pay, and few clerics, perhaps not even Rafsanjani, would pay it in order to avoid a Mesbah-Ahmadinejad take-over. It bears mentioning that although a majority of the members voted for Rafsanjani as the chairman, 56 of them also voted for Mohammad Yazdi, a close ally of Ayatollah Khamenei and a friend of Mesbah's, as the vice vice-chairman of the Assembly.
Only if the current conditions deteriorate to a point that the very existence, and not just the legitimacy, of the regime becomes endangered, then the Assembly of Experts may present itself as a last-ditch battleground for the various forces. Until then, Rafsanjani's position in the Assembly is a bargaining chip with which he can perhaps secure himself a better deal in a game rigged to favor his opponents. It is with that understanding that Ayatollah Khamenei, in this week's Friday prayers, spoke unveiled threats to the street protesters, while reserving a more pragmatic rhetoric toward Rafsanjani. A riled up public and Rafsanjani with his back against the wall are a dangerous combination to have as one's opponents.
For now, the only hope of the reformist camp is increasing intensification of the protests (which does not seem to be happening) and the slow enlisting of new, influential supporters within Iran's governing systems.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau
Photo (above) Top Iranian clergymen are seen under a picture of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they attend the first day of the Assembly of Experts in Iran's old parliament in Tehran, Iran on February 24, 2008. The Assembly of Experts is a clerical body that elects the supreme leader. (UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah)