By Mostafa Khosravi and Kamran Ashtary*
While the eyes of the world are drawn to the American presidential race, which seems never ending, Iran prepares for one of its most important elections since the beginning of the Islamic Republic some 35 years ago. The issue at hand is the role of the supreme leader. Will Iran’s chief cleric be a king-like figure who derives political power as God’s representative? Or will he be a spiritual leader with power monitored by an elected body?
In just a few days, Iranians will go to the polls to choose a new parliament and Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is a deliberative body, made up of elected clerics, that chooses the supreme leader. Given the age of the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this coming Assembly of Experts will be the one that determines the tone of Iran’s leadership for the coming decades.
Iranian leadership has been signaling that a new supreme leader will need to be chosen in the coming term in several different ways. They have been open about the health of current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, going as far as to show him in his hospital room after prostate surgery. In addition, there have been open discussions about the succession of power in Iran.
Powerful clerics sitting on the current Assembly of Experts represent two very different positions on the role of Iran’s supreme leader. Long-time political powerbroker and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani leads a group of clerics that believes that the supreme leader and his office need to be monitored by an elected body. A group of hardliners, led by Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, believes that the supreme leader derives power from God and should not be monitored.
When Mr. Khamenei took power after the 1989 death of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, his term was meant to be temporary.
At the time, the succession of power was unclear. Mr. Khomeini’s presumed successor had fallen out of favor because of opposition to the mass executions of political opponents in 1988.
As a result, when Mr. Khomeini died a few months later, there was no one prepared to take his place and Iran’s revolutionary government faced a security crisis. The Assembly of Experts, which selects the supreme leader, held emergency sessions which led to the appointment of Ali Khamenei as the new leader.
Mr. Rafsanjani was one of Mr. Khamenei’s most powerful backers at the time of his election by the Assembly of Experts. It has been claimed that Mr. Khamenei was seen as someone who would be a weak leader and prone to influence.
Mr. Khamenei proved more political than many in the Assembly of Experts expected. The new supreme leader quickly created alliances with hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards, taking sides in political disputes.
Under Mr. Khamenei, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards became increasingly involved in politics. This is something the first supreme leader expressly and clearly opposed. It also contravenes the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. The result of the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guards in alliance with the office of the supreme leader is a massive ideological gap among supporters of the Islamic Republic itself. The gap between Iranian political insiders is now a chasm. This is very different than it was in the late 1980s.
The results of creating a supreme leader who answers to no one are already clear. Candidates who are critical of the policies of the supreme leader or seek to change the power structure of the office currently do not receive permission to stand for election. The most famous to be rejected is Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
By rejecting candidates who question the policies of the supreme leader, the government of Iran is creating a kind of echo chamber of support for itself. In many ways, the regime is losing touch with the people of Iran and is out of step with demographic and social changes.
Yet, the population is pragmatic. The majority of people in Iran harbor no romance about revolutionary change. The chaos on their borders is the best security the Iranian government could hope for. It mutes the desire for political change. For this reason, elections in Iran, however flawed, remain important and relevant.
Despite everything, Iran’s governing elite remain sensitive to pressure from the populace. They want the appearance of democratic authority. In a recent example, after refusing to allow nearly all reformist candidates to run for seat in the parliament or Assembly of Experts, there was an outcry from the public. This resulted in permitting several previously disallowed candidates to run. However, there is still no way for reform-minded candidates to gain control of either body. There are just too few of them allowed to run.
Regardless, what is at stake is quite clear: will the Assembly of Experts be dominated by clerics who see the office of the supreme leader as divine or will it be dominated by clerics who see it as earth-bound? This is an issue that is not limited to reformists.
There is no doubt that Mr. Khamenei has ideas about who should succeed him. He has the ultimate power of deciding who can run for a seat on the Assembly of Experts and thus can influence, if not control, its deliberations about his successor.
With every faction vying for a say over who the next supreme leader will be, and trying to promote their own candidates, this coming election is one to watch. While the supreme leader cannot govern without a coalition of powers, the person at the top does have undue influence on politics and society in Iran.
If the people of Iran want leadership that responds to the citizenry, then the stakes are high. Will there be no checks on the power of the supreme leader? There are many large and small issues in addition to this one, but the choice for many is stark. The space for electoral democracy will either grow or shrink given the outcome of this election.
Where will Iran be in twenty years? This coming election will hold some clues.
* Mostafa Khosravi and Kamran Ashtary are editor and editor-in-chief for Dar Sahn (The Floor), a project which monitors the activities of Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts.