The Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and remove the Supreme Leader, was established on December 10, 1982, based on several provisions of the constitution of the Islamic Republic. But what is its role today under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and how true is it to the original ideals under which it was created?
Regarding the Assembly, Article 107 of the constitution states that “the task of appointing the Leader shall be vested with the experts elected by the people.” And Article 111 gives the assembly the authority to remove the Supreme Leader and choose a replacement for him: “Whenever the Leader becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties, or fails one of the qualifications mentioned in Articles 5 and 109, or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the qualifications initially, he will be dismissed. The authority of determination in this matter is vested with the experts specified in Article 108. In the event of the death, or resignation or dismissal of the Leader, the experts shall take steps within the shortest possible time for the appointment of the new Leader.”
The 88 members of the Assembly of Experts are elected for an eight-year term, but during each term, a few members usually die of old age. The members of the Assembly must be mujtahids, or recognized religious authorities, and are elected by the popular vote. The candidates must be qualified by the Guardian Council and, if the council requires it, must pass a written test to prove their qualifications. The Guardian Council is very rigid in its vetting of the candidates, and immediately rejects anyone who opposes Ayatollah Khamenei. As a result, in some cases, there is only a single candidate for a certain voting district. And, in the last five assembly elections, on average 44.5 percent of eligible voters have participated.
The assembly’s secretariat manages its relations with the other institutions of the Islamic Republic and oversees the Research Center of the Islamic Government. The center’s seven goals include “studying [the role and impact of] Islamic political thought on Islamic government,” “running educational courses in order to introduce political Islamic thought to Islamic government” and “conducting comparative studies about different topics [relevant to] Islamic government.”
The secretariat also publishes the Quarterly Journal of Islamic Government. In the last 12 years, it has published 84 issues on subjects including “The Implications of a Ruler’s Appointment by God in Shia Political Thought,” “The Application of Negotiation in Diplomatic Relations of an Islamic State” and “The Nature of ‘Security Jurisprudence’ and the ‘Jurisprudence of Security’”.
Laws require that the assembly meets at least every six months, for two days each time. If at least one-third of the members request it, the assembly will hold a special meeting.
The Assembly of Experts meetings are run by a seven-member board of directors that is elected every two years. The assembly hosts the following committees:
- The Constitution’s Article 108 Committee, which has the power to change the laws regarding “setting the number and qualifications of the experts, the mode of their election, and the code of procedure regulating the sessions.”
- The Financial and Administrative Affairs Committee that oversees the internal affairs of the assembly.
- The Political and Social Committee, which keeps the members abreast of domestic and foreign developments.
- The Constitution’s Articles 107 and 109 Committee, which is responsible for the “discovery” of individuals who are qualified to succeed or replace the Supreme Leader.
- The Constitution’s Article 111 Committee, also known as the “Investigation Committee,” which is responsible for monitoring the Supreme Leader to make sure he continues to meet all necessary criteria and that he remains qualified.
- The Committee to Sustain and Guard the Leader.
“Guarding” vs. “Supervising”
The tension between “supervising” the Leader and “guarding” him has been a challenge to the assembly, and has put it in a bind. Over the last four decades, many discussions have taken place about the need for the Assembly of Experts to “supervise” the Leader, and its ability to do so.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the current chairman of the assembly, spoke to the Quarterly Journal of Islamic Government in the summer of 2006. “Many members of the Assembly of Experts were of the opinion that the Investigation Committee must investigate institutions under the supervision of the Supreme Leader to find out whether they are run properly or not...The majority agreed,” he said. And yet, according to Jannati himself, this majority was not able to progress and implement the idea. “We brought up the subject with the Leader,” he said. “We talked about it over a few meetings but the Leader...opposed the idea.”
The reasons behind Khamenei’s opposition to the supervisory role of the Assembly of Experts were not only personal but also historical. During the time of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, the assembly never discussed the subject of supervision because they did not dare. And when Ayatollah Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, he did not wish to be treated differently and considered the idea of supervision a blow to his standing, both politically and personally.
He wanted to have the same relations with the Assembly of Experts that Khomeini did. To a large degree, he has succeeded. Over the last decade, the number of the assembly members who agree with him has increased. “This supervision is not about approving...but about guarding,” said Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, the then-chairman of the assembly, in the spring of 2012. Ahmad Khatami, member of the assembly’s board of directors, and Sadegh Larijani, a member of the assembly and the head of the judiciary, have argued several times that the constitution has nothing to say about “supervising” the Supreme Leader.
So over the last decade, Ayatollah Khamenei has gradually succeeded in persuading the majority of assembly members to subscribe to his own point of view — opposition to the idea of the Assembly of Experts’ playing a supervisory role over the Supreme Leader — or at least he has has made sure it is the dominant view. Weaker voices, such as those of the Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Ali Motahari and the former Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, now under house arrest, who support the supervisory role of the assembly, have failed to find an audience among the members or, at least, the members do not dare acknowledge them.
But this comes as no surprise. The Guardian Council has disqualified most candidates who might be critical of the Supreme Leader and continues to do so. Besides, a considerable number of the current members of the assembly are those who have been personally appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to lead bodies such as the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council and other institutions that “belong” to him. Therefore, they must be considered to be more his “pawns” rather than his “supervisors.”
But, considering Khamenei’s advanced age, this brings up serious questions about the selection of the next Supreme Leader. Khamenei himself brought up the subject with the members of the assembly in a meeting in early 2016. “Think about God in choosing the next Leader,” he warned them, urging them to be very careful.
“Discovering” the Next Supreme Leader
A number of assembly members believe in the theory of “discovery” when it comes to appointing a Leader. According to this theory, it is not the vote of the Assembly of Experts that bestows the Leader’s legitimacy upon him. He is anointed by God and by the “Hidden Imam,” or the Shia Messiah. The assembly merely “discovers” the Leader, introduces him to the people and testifies that he is qualified to be Deputy Hidden Imam at this juncture. At the same time, the usual formalities prescribed by the constitution must be observed as well.
According to Article 5 of the constitution, the Leader elected by the Assembly of Experts must be “just and pious...fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability.” Furthermore, Article 109 states that the Leader must qualify as a religious authority and possess “justice and piety, as required for the leadership of the Islamic Nation” and must have the “right political and social discernment, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership.”
But, constitutional requirements aside, it is clear that a future Supreme Leader must have strong relations with the military and security establishment, especially with the Revolutionary Guards, a reasonably wide support among Shia religious authorities, a relatively strong social and political charisma and a strong political and media network. Assembly of Experts members are bound to take these unwritten laws into account in choosing the next Leader.
Although it is the Constitution’s Articles 107 and 109 Committee that is responsible for “discovering” the next Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei can ask the committee to inform him about its choices beforehand. Historical precedent shows that, in reality, members of the Assembly of Experts have not had much say in choosing the successor to the Supreme Leader, neither when Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was chosen by Khomeini as his designated successor — although he was later removed — nor when Ayatollah Khamenei actually succeeded Khomeini.
It is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei will choose a successor while he is still alive and simply inform the assembly of his choice. The assembly will then just rubber stamp his decision, as it did in 1989 when it first selected Khamenei as “interim” Supreme Leader and then as the permanent one under the pressure of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his allies.
The Power of the Network
There is also the possibility that Khamenei will not choose a successor during his lifetime, and that the assembly will be required to do it after his death. In this case, some members might propose a few changes — for example, introducing a “Leadership Council,” as is provided for in the constitution. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that not only the preferences of Khamenei, but also those of his existing power network, will play a decisive role.
This network would not be weakened enough within a day or even a few days after Khamenei’s death to lose its ability to control and guide the Assembly of Experts. Taking this into account, it is very unlikely that the Assembly of Experts, as it stands, will play any significant role in choosing the next Leader apart from putting its signature on the official decision. Even at the moment, the assembly plays this ceremonial role. The chairman of the assembly is favored by Khamenei — even though he might have received the lowest possible number of votes in his district. Members of the assembly give interviews in praise of Khamenei almost every day, most of the members put their annual seal of approval on Khamenei’s performance, they visit him and ask him for guidance, and create special workgroups to pursue the advice of the Supreme Leader. This is exactly the reverse of the spirit of the constitution and the letter of the assembly’s own bylaws.
In the last two years, the Assembly of Experts has adopted a more “executive” posture as a result of Khamenei’s prodding. According to its senior members, they have formed workgroups to “demand” actions from the three branches of the government. Such powers are neither provided by the constitution nor by the assembly’s own bylaws. They have been adapted simply because Ayatollah Khamenei wants them to be. In other words, an elected body that was supposed to supervise the Supreme Leader is now a “card” in the hands of the Supreme Leader, a tool he can use to pressure this or that faction of Iranian politics, or to further his own political goals.
The Assembly of Experts currently stands as a symbol of the political decline of the institutions of the Islamic Republic.
More on Ayatollah Khamenei and power structures under his control:
Decoding Iran’s Politics: All the Supreme Leader’s Institutions, August 31, 2018
How Does Iran’s Leader Rule Parliament?, June 25, 2018
Decoding Iran’s Politics: The Supreme National Security Council, May 14, 2018
King Ali of Iran: How does a Rebel Become a Sultan?, August 4, 2017
Whose Cabinet is it ?, July 31, 2017