Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Power Struggle in Iran – Part II: Elections for the Assembly of Experts

Ayelet Savyon, Middle East Media Research Institute:
The power struggle in the upper echelons of the Iranian political leadership is escalating in the run-up to the upcoming election for the Assembly of Experts, slated for October 2006. [1] The two key figures at the center of the power struggle are Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi. Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi is the influential religious mentor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and of most of the Iranian security apparatuses. READ MORE

The Assembly of Experts

The Assembly of Experts is a supreme governing body responsible for electing the Supreme Leader and overseeing his performance. The Assembly is even authorized by the constitution to depose the Supreme Leader if it feels that he is not discharging his duties according to the laws of Islam, or that he is unable to function as leader due to illness or any other reason. It consists of 86 clerics directly elected by the public for an eight-year term. Candidates for the Assembly of Experts must be approved by the Guardian Council, which is controlled by the conservatives, led by Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. The Assembly convenes twice a year and its sessions are closed.

The current Assembly of Experts, elected in 1998, is headed by Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, whose deputies are Hujjat Al-Islam Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini. Some 70 of its members are conservatives. It should be noted that those holding positions in the regime are permitted to be members of the Assembly of Experts while in office.

The Significance of the October 2006 Elections

The upcoming elections are highly significant, in light of increasing reports that the supporters of Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi have been working in the last few months to promote the election of Yazdi's candidates, and thus to tilt the balance of power within the Assembly in his favor.

In addition, it has recently become known that current Assembly head Ayatollah Ali Meshkini has asked Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei to release him from his duties as leader of Friday prayers in the city of Qom due to severe illness. [2] Therefore, it is assumed that Meshkini will not resubmit his candidacy in the upcoming October elections.

The Candidates

The two figures emerging as likely contenders for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts are Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was appointed by Khamenei in Octoer 2005 to be the No. 2 man in the Iranian regime, [3] and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, mentor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and of large portions of the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence apparatuses, and the conservative fundamentalist faction, which has a majority in the current Majlis.

Rafsanjani has announced that he has not yet decided whether he will participate in the elections. He seems to be repeating his strategy from the presidential elections a year ago. During the year leading up to those elections, he refused to announce his candidacy despite intense speculation regarding his plans. He did so only when the registration of candidates opened, a few weeks before the elections, saying that he was submitting his candidacy only in response to popular demand. The result was that Rafsanjani, an extremely powerful politician, lost the election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was at the time the relatively unknown mayor of Tehran. It seems that Ahmadinejad managed to win the majority of votes thanks to the significant religious support of Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi, and thanks to the support networks that Yazdi had mobilized for him in the mosques and within Iran's security and intelligence apparatuses.

The Significance of a Possible Takeover of the Assembly of Experts by the Conservative Fundamentalists

Rafsanjani's supporters and the opponents of the fundamentalist conservatives fear that the latter will make use of the strategy which served them in previous elections for the municipal councils in 2003, for the Seventh Majlis in 2004, and for the presidency in 2005. In these elections, the Guardian Council, headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, disqualified most of the reformist candidates. The public reacted to the numerous disqualifications and to the blunt interference in the proper political process by boycotting the elections - which led to a victory for the fundamentalist conservatives. In the Tehran municipal elections, for example, Ahmadinejad was elected mayor by only 15% of the city's inhabitants, since most of the population refrained from voting. Rafsanjani's supporters are apparently concerned that the Guardian Council will again interfere in the candidate approval process - both in the elections for the Assembly of Experts and in the concurrent elections for the municipal councils. This might cause the public to boycott the elections in protest, resulting in another victory for the fundamentalist conservatives, headed by Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi.

The reformist Internet daily Rooz reported that Ayatollah Yazdi's supporters are determined to use the upcoming elections for the Assembly of Experts to end Rafsanjani's political career. [4]

Ayatollah Yazdi's pupil Qassem Ravanbakhsh published an article in the online edition of Yazdi's weekly Parto-e Sokhan criticizing the policy formulated by Rafsanjani, by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, and by Hassan Rohani, former Supreme Council for National Security secretary who was in charge of nuclear negotiations during Khatami's time. Ravanbakhsh stated that the Guardian Council should disqualify these individuals, as well as clerics from the reformist parties, from participating in the election for the Assembly of Experts. He explained that at this time, Assembly candidates must meet the following "stringent standards":

1. A reputation for piety, reliability, and moral virtue.

2. Ijtihad [competence to make religious rulings]

3. Political and social vision, and familiarity with current affairs.

4. Belief in the basic principles of the Islamic Republic's regime.

5. An impeccable political and social record.

Ravanbakhsh argued that "[even] an individual who once met these standards, and was approved by the Imam [Khomeini] and by the Honorable Leader [Khamenei]," does not necessarily qualify as a candidate today. "If he is now perceived to be lacking even one of these qualifications - for any reason whatsoever - he is not a worthy candidate for the Assembly of Experts. Therefore, the individuals listed below are not eligible candidates."

Ravanbakhsh then insinuated, without naming names, that the following figures lacked the required qualifications and that they had worked against Iran's interests in the past:

1. Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who rejects the principle of "the rule of the jurisprudent" (velayat-e faqih) in its current interpretation.
2. Hassan Rohani, whose "feeble" nuclear policy "brought the development... of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to a standstill, and caused much harm to the Iranian people."
3. Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, whose "economic and cultural policy caused grave harm to Iran's economy and culture. Instead of protecting the religious and moral values of the public, [he and his people] exploited their powerful positions… to spread licentiousness and moral corruption."
4. Hashemi Rafsanjani, about whom it is implied in Ravanbakhsh's statement that "even the backing of [powerful] political bodies does not render unqualified candidates eligible." As an example of this, Ravanbakhsh mentioned the 2005 presidential elections, in which Rafsanjani participated but lost. He wrote that a certain figure [i.e. Rafsanjani] "enjoyed the overwhelming support of political parties on the right and the left, and [was also supported by] the vast majority of the Iranian media and the press," but that "the public elected a man [i.e. Ahmadinejad] who was not even backed by any party - a man who emerged from the masses and joined the masses."

"The Assembly of Experts," said Ravanbakhsh, "should stop acting on the basis of interests and start obeying the law. Some figures who currently hold a privileged position in the Assembly [i.e. Rafsanjani, who is the Assembly deputy head] undoubtedly lack the aforementioned qualifications, since according to the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini], the criterion for assessing an individual's eligibility is his present situation [rather than his previous connections to Ayatollah Khomeini]… The days of the 'left-wing faction' [i.e. the reformists] and the 'right-wing faction' [i.e. the conservatives] are over. In the [upcoming] election for the Assembly of Experts, just as in the [2005] presidential election, the people's party will win." [5]

It should be noted that, on the eve of the 2005 presidential elections, Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei stated that the Iranian regime should consist of two branches: the right-wing conservatives and the left-wing reformists. [6] The view expressed by Ravanbakhsh - which reflects Mesbah-e Yazdi's position, and constitutes explicit opposition not only to the reformists but also to the right-wing faction, i.e. to the regime's moderate conservatives - is the beginning of open opposition to Khamenei.

Should Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi be elected head of the Assembly of Experts, or strengthen his influence in the Assembly, his position will enable him to openly affect Iran's policy, to criticize Khamenei, and even to force Khamenei to adopt policies corresponding to his own positions. Yazdi may even aspire to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader of Iran - thereby completing the takeover of the regime by the fundamentalist faction headed by Yazdi, and realizing the vision of the "Second Islamic Revolution."

* A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project.

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 253 "The 'Second Islamic Revolution' in Iran: Power Struggle at the Top", November 17, 2005,

[2] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), April 10, 2006.

[3] For the circumstances leading to Rafsanjani's appointment as the No. 2 man in the regime, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 253 "The 'Second Islamic Revolution' in Iran: Power Struggle at the Top", November 17, 2005,

[4] Rooz, May 22, 2006.

[5] Parto-e-Sokhan, May 10, 2006,

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 226, "The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran (Part II)", June 16, 2005,