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Who will lead?

25 Jun 2009 16:323 Comments

Who will lead? The Experts Assembly has the power to remove Ayatollah Khamenei.

By GARETH SMYTH in Beirut | 25 June 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] While Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lived, his political and religious pre-eminence meant his word was law. Many Iranians still assign him an aura of infallibility.

But Ayatollah Khomeini left behind a political system with checks and balances. One of these is the power of the Experts Assembly, a clerical body chaired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to remove the supreme leader (rahbar), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With tensions between Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei exacerbated by the presidential election, this power of the Experts Assembly (majlis-e khobregan) may explain why Rafsanjani has reportedly been spending time in Qom, the centre of the clerical establishment.

Some years ago, a Rafsanjani associate mentioned to me the option of a leadership council replacing the leader in the event of Ayatollah Khamenei's demise. This was topical apparently because of rumours, especially in the United States, over the leader's health.

Rafsanjani's preference for a leadership council was supposedly that while he could be part of a council, he could not become leader as the masses would not accept a man who was not a sayyed, or descendant of the prophet Mohammad.

This might have been a delicate way of saying Rafsanjani was unpopular, as had been shown by the 2005 presidential election.

Another close associate of Rafsanjani showed no reaction to the council idea when I raised it with him. But, in any case, some in the Rafsanjani camp were already thinking of the leadership. Somewhat speculative at the time, this is now a more nagging issue.

Today's fissures within the political class cannot leave aside the role of Ayatollah Khamenei as leader and may come to centre on Rafsanjani's role as head of the Experts Assembly, which chooses the leader and is empowered to remove him.

The establishment of a lasting leadership council might require a constitutional amendment, although the option of a temporary council after the leader's death or removal (or when he is ill) is cited in article 111 of the constitution.

In fact, removing the leader is -- in constitutional terms -- relatively straightforward. Under article 111, the Experts Assembly can do this if it judges the leader has lost, or turns out never to have had, the qualities and qualifications for which it chose him.

These are specified by articles 5 and 109, including "scholarship... justice and piety... [and the] right political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership."

These are the grounds that lifted Ayatollah Khamenei, on the designation of the ailing Ayatollah Khomeini, to the leadership despite the greater religious qualifications of other clerics. But a notion as flexible as "adequate capacity for leadership" could now work against Ayatollah Khamenei.

From the arguments over the conduct of the election used by Rafsanjani, as well as by reformist figures like defeated candidate Mir Hossein Musavi, it is easy to see potential constitutional grounds for a challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei within the Experts Assembly.

Politically of course, removing Ayatollah Khamenei would be a massive step, and the Assembly -- whose 86 members, all clerics, are directly elected for eight-year terms -- is often seen a dusty, remote body that usually meets once or twice a year.

But Iranian clerics can be very political animals, especially when they smell crisis.

And the split within Iran's political class -- surely now seeping into the clergy, the armed forces and elsewhere -- carries a whiff of crisis.

While compromises are still possible, current disagreement between Ayatollah Khamenei and Rafsanjani -- more bitter than any of their spats since the 1979 Revolution -- will worry Qom.

The tension between the two has risen sharply since the 2005 presidential election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad centred his campaign on attacking Rafsanjani.

Long before nominations even opened, Ahmadinejad, then barely known outside Tehran, told Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the eminence grise of the fundamentalists, he would win by criticizing Rafsanjani.

Ahmadinejad used his own reputation for simple living to exploit the unpopularity of Rafsanjani, rightly or wrongly regarded by many Iranians as someone who had enriched himself and his family while in office. It helped deliver a second-round knockout of 17m to 10m votes.

After his defeat, Rafsanjani rapidly took a central role in organizing opposition to Ahmadinejad, as the president dismissed many of Rafsanjani's allies from official posts.

Three months after Ahmadinejad took office, Rafsanjani in Tehran Friday prayers accused the president of damaging "national unity," removing "efficient managers" and presenting "vague pictures" in his campaign against corruption. Significantly, this was just two days after Ayatollah Khamenei had defended Ahmadinejad's government and called for it to be given more time.

By 2006 Rafsanjani joined Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president, and Mehdi Karrubi, the former parliamentary speaker, in a "coalition of the concerned." The group came together in alarm at the president's foreign policy pronouncements, which they felt undermined Iran's national interest, and in concern at Ahmadinejad's reflationary economics.

Iranian politics, however, rarely moves in a clear direction. There were several occasions when Ayatollah Khamenei moved to curb Ahmadinejad and temper his enthusiasm. This was consistent with the leader's tendency to work to balance out factions within the political class.

In the run-up to elections in December 2006 for the Experts Assembly, Ayatollah Khamenei encouraged Rafsanjani to run, possibly in order to check Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a conservative cleric considered an influence on Ahmadinejad. This was important: as Ayatollah Khomeini was 65 at the time, it was conceivable that those elected would choose his successor.

Rafsanjani came first in the Tehran division of the Assembly election, and when the Assembly's head, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, died the following year, Rafsanjani replaced him. In an important indication of the mood among clerics, Rafsanjani defeated by 41 votes to 34 Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Guardian Council, the powerful constitutional watchdog.

Since then, and especially in the recent presidential election and its aftermath, the fractures within the political class have deepened. Just days before polling, after Ahmadinejad directly accused Rafsanjani and his sons of corruption and financing Mousavi's campaign, Rafsanjani warned that Ayatollah Khamenei's "silence" over Ahmadinejad's "lies" was threatening social unrest.

Such a direct attack on the leader from a senior figure is almost unknown in the Islamic Republic. But Ayatollah Khamenei's explicit support for Ahmadinejad and his ruling that the election was fair ahead of any Guardian Council enquiry may have undermined the notion of the leader as a detached arbiter dedicated to Islamic Iran rather than any one faction -- a point many in Qom will have grasped.

It would be a massive, even dangerous step for the Experts Assembly to remove Ayatollah Khamenei. It would also be unprecedented.

The nearest parallel is the removal in 1989 of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. But this was done, it appears, through a diktat from Ayatollah Khomeini.

No-one in today's Islamic Republic has the authority -- certainly not the constitutional power -- to issue such a diktat. And this means that no-one, not even the leader, is indispensable.

This is an edited version of a piece due to appear in An-Nahar and the Daily Star (Arabic and English) in Beirut. Gareth Smyth was the chief Iran correspondent of the Financial Times 2003-7


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Any Iranians who still assign Ayatollah Khomeini his aura of infallibility had their greatest moment in 1979 and since then have fully deserved to be considered part of the Dark Ages of Iran's history. That year was a living hell for many other Iranian men and women who whether pro-Shah or not, paid for being secular persons rather than fundamentalists. They paid with their life or simply with the complete loss of their personal freedom. If not now after thirty years, then certainly later, the wheels of time have this habit of turning and history also tends to repeat itself - especially in Iran. It is an irony that the parents of many of those who are so bravely demonstrating in these days and being beaten, tortured and killed by orders of the current regime, may well have been the ones who welcomed this regime into Iran all those years ago.

Roxana / June 25, 2009 5:06 PM

The Democratic nation of Iran fights for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Iran. Website: http://iran115.org

Democratic nation of Iran / June 26, 2009 5:20 AM

This is an excellent piece.

What do you think of Rafsanjani's meet with Javad Shahrestani?

"Rafsanjani is known to have met with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani's representative in Iran, Javad Shahrestani."

matoko / June 27, 2009 8:50 PM