Assembly of Experts leadership race may hint at power balance in Iran

The race for the leadership of Iran’s Assembly of Experts is on. Who wins with what votes may tell us much about the current factional balance of power in Iran.

On 21 October 2014, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani passed away, leaving a vacuum at the top of one of Iran’s most influential but little known centers of power, the Assembly of Experts. The race to replace this body’s general secretory is on, and who wins with what votes could be very revealing about the balance of power between the various political currents in Iran.

The Assembly in Iran’s political system is an elected body responsible for selecting, monitoring, and removing the supreme leader. It has 86 members, who serve for eight years (unlike the four year election cycles for the presidency, parliament, and city and village councils), all of whom are faghih or Shi’a jurists educated in religous seminaries and practicing Islamic jurisprudence.

First formed in 1982, the Assembly has been among the least active centres of power in Iran. It has only had three general secretaries: Ayatollah Meshkini, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mahdavi-Kani (2010-2014). It’s historically significant actions have included selecting Ayatollah Ali Montazeri as deputy supreme leader (he was later removed from this position by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) and selecting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. While this body is empowered to supervise the supreme leader, it has historically not performed this function. As head of the Assembly, Mahdavi-Kani explained the lack of monitoring of the supreme leader’s performance by interpreting this function to mean “protecting” (herasat) the supreme leader.

Mahdavi-Kani’s replacement will have big shoes to fill. As an elder statesman of the Islamic Republic, Mahdavi-Kani was a member of the Council of the Revolution before and after 1979, minister of interior, prime minister, a member of the Council of Guardians, a member of the Expediency Council, head of Imam Sadegh University, and of course general secretary of the Assembly. He was a founder and the general secretary of the Combatant Clergy Association, a key organisation in Iran’s conservative movement, both in its incarnation as the “Islamic right” and “principalists”. Especially after 1997 when the neo-principalists, a new generation of hardline conservatives, began rising up in the Iranian system, Mahdavi-Kani was a pivotal figure in maintaining unity among principalists. Always more closely affiliated with traditional principalists rather than neo-principalists, he fended off challenges by the latter including from their ideological-religious leader Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. Traditional principalists – neo-principalist disunity is theorised to have been an important factor which allowed reformist-backed and centrist-oriented Hassan Rouhani to become president in 2013.

The race to replace Mahdavi-Kani could be indicative of the balance of power between political currents in Iran today. This is in part because, as all of the body’s previous major decisions have shown, it is susceptible to influence from other centers of power. In all likelihood, principalist domination will persist, and the selection of a figure like Ayatollah Mahmood Hash Shahroudi may be indicative of this continuity. The question is whether king-maker traditional principalists will work more closely with the more moderate centrists or hardline neo-principalists (reformists are less significant players in the Assembly).

This battle becomes even more consequential in light of the possibility that the body may select a new supreme leader, for only the second time in its history, in the remainder of its current or next term beginning 2015. The coming to power of a new supreme leader could lead to the reconfiguration of politics of the Islamic Republic, meaning that the balance of power of the assembly may be a good place to seek to understand what this new dynamic could look like.