Supervision of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and institutions under his control is one of the issues both opponents and proponents have changed their positions on over time, depending on their political interests.
One of those to have pivoted is Ali Khamenei, who used to support supervision of the Supreme Leader, right up until he became Supreme Leader himself.
“If we assume that the experts [members of the Assembly of Experts] have the duty to detect incompetence and lack of qualification in the Supreme Leader and act according to their findings — meaning considering the next Supreme Leader or announcing their views — then undoubtedly, the experts need to be present in domains close to the Leader and his establishment.”
So said Ali Khamenei in a session of the Assembly of Experts on July 27, 1983. The then-president also endorsed statements by Ali Meshkini, the first chairman of the Assembly, saying: “Our problem is that when we think about the Supreme Leader, the current Exalted Leader [Ayatollah Khomeini] comes to our minds. Well, his is a different situation. But we are writing law for the future here.”
Khamenei was opposing Article 18 of the Statute to Implement Article 111 of the Constitution, which afforded the Assembly of Experts the power to dismiss the Supreme Leader, on the basis that it interpreted the Iranian Constitution in a way that replaced “supervision” with “consultation”. The precise wording was: “The Investigations Commission is ordered to announce its readiness to consult with the Exalted Supreme Leader in the matters concerning leadership.”
This article was approved by the Assembly of Experts nonetheless. But Khamenei continued his opposition even afterwards. In response, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then vice-chairman of the Assembly, told him: “You’ll just have to live with being sorry about it, because it’s been passed.”
Khamenei then took advantage of his position as the president of the Islamic Republic and questioned the Guardian Council about it. In the next day’s session of the Assembly, he insisted again: “Consultation is against the constitution.”
On August 3, 1983, in response to a fifth letter by Khamenei on the subject, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, secretary of the Guardian Council, wrote that the constitutionality of laws passed by the Assembly of Experts was not within the purview of the Guardian Council.
But notably in the very next line, Golpayegani contradicted the first, agreeing with Khamenei: “Article 18 of the statute passed by the Assembly of Experts has nothing to do with Article 111 of the Constitution, and laws passed by the Assembly of Experts are not valid beyond the confines of this article and others of the Constitution.”
According to the book Shedding Light on the Darkroom of the Experts by the religious scholar Mohsen Kadivar, most advocates of supervision were traditional right-wingers, while opponents were typically those left-wingers who later became the reformists. At that time, the left-wingers were close to the office of Ayatollah Khomeini and his son Ahmad, while certain conservative figures, including Ayatollah Ahmad Azari Qomi, had differences with Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Supervision” Is Rejected
The same thing happened when, in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini who was on his deathbed appointed a 25-man “Council for the Revision of the Constitution”. Once again the left opposed supervision of the Supreme Leader although, this time, the right was not unified in supporting it. In any case, the proposal to enshrine supervision in the constitution was rejected.
In a session of the council that was held after Khomeini had died and Khamenei had been chosen as the “interim” Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Momen, a member of the commission that studied the issues related to the Supreme Leader and the Assembly of Experts, read a proposal on Article 108 of the constitution that defines the membership and the duties of the Assembly of Experts: “To supervise and ascertain that the duties of the Supreme Leader are carried out correctly...a number of virtuous religious authorities...shall be elected to the Assembly of Experts by the direct and secret ballots of the people. The qualification of the candidates for the Assembly of Experts shall be decided by the religious jurists of the Guardian Council. The term of the Assembly of Experts is eight years and the elections for the assembly must be held before the previous term expires so that the country would never have to be without an Assembly of Experts.”
Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, a prominent figure in the Islamic left-wing circles, opposed this proposal: “We select an individual and put him on the top of the regime’s pyramid and say that everybody is under his supervision but then we want to create a secret leadership and put a group of people to supervise him so that they would have the right to ask him incessantly ‘why did you do this? Explain yourself. Why do you want to do the other thing?’ This means that we are creating a secret leadership.”
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini who at the time was a figure close to Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the once heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini who fell out of his favor, supported this proposal and said that supervising the Supreme Leader is the basis for implementing Article 111 of the constitution that provides for the removal of the Supreme Leader if he does not qualify: “Can we really have an Assembly of Experts that lacks the power to supervise and suddenly decides to remove the Supreme Leader without anything to support this decision? It cannot be done this way. They must be informed of the situation to act when it is appropriate and it does not matter whether they get their information from close up, from afar or through consultation.”
Hassan Taheri Khoramabadi who had been Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative at the Revolutionary Guards, also supported the proposal and said that supervising the Supreme Leader was really about supervising his associates: “Supervision does not mean that, god forbid, there is something wrong with the Supreme Leader himself and he needs to be supervised. There can be a lot of issues in connection with his associates, the people around him and those who might influence his associates — issues that he himself might not be aware of.”
Abbas Ali Amid Zanjani, a right-leaning cleric, also opposed the proposal. “I am against supervision the way that it is spelled out in Article 108 of the Constitution,” he said. “I would consider the principle of supervision a reasonable one if they could think of another way of doing it. There must be some way of supervising the actions and performance of the Leader.”
For “Supervision”, Read “Weakening”
Abdollah Nouri, a cleric close to Khomeini’s son Ahmad, also opposed the proposal, saying: “I do not believe creating an institution that would accompany him [the Supreme Leader] every step of the way, from day one ,is the right thing to do at all. This would definitely weaken the position of the Supreme Leader we want to have.”
By contrast Ayatollah Azari Qomi approved of the proposal and, like Ebrahim Amini, said it was necessary for the implementation of Article 111 of the constitution: “Article 111...has assigned the task — meaning deciding that the Leader is unable to carry out his duties — to the Assembly of Experts, as defined by Article 108. As it happens, the Assembly of Experts has created an Investigations Commission... of individuals so that they can function as advisors to the Leader. This means supervision. Do you deny it? Do you deny Article 111?” he demanded to know.
In the end, the proposal was not approved. Later on when Khamenei became Supreme Leader, his associates then denied that the Assembly of Experts has any standing to supervise him because the very word was absent from the Constitution. Some, like Mashhad’s Friday Imam Ahmad Alamolhoda, said members of the Assembly could not even supervise their own wali (“guardian”).
Khamenei’s website refers to the detailed transcripts of deliberations by the Council for the Revision of the Constitution, cited the views of Abdollah Nouri and Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha. Unlike Khamenei, they had been against giving the Assembly of Experts the power to supervise the Supreme Leader from the beginning.
The pair wrote: “The idea of supervision has not been very important. That is why Article 111 makes no mention of supervision, and only empowers the Assembly of Experts [to remove the Supreme Leader] if it decides the Leader is unable to carry out his legal duties or if he lacks qualifications, or if he did not qualify to start with.
“A minimum level of supervision is only a ceremonial supervision and, as a result, is meaningless. A maximum level of supervision is nothing except creating a new leader called the Assembly of Experts. There can be no doubt that this would lead to a serious weakening of the exalted position of the Supreme Leader.”
One Cannot Supervise His Own “Guardian”
In an editorial, the website Mashregh News distinguished between supervising the Supreme Leader regarding his qualifications and supervising him for his actions. “If supervision is about his actions,” it opined, “then the supervising institutions have the right to impeach and the Leader must answer to that institution.
“But, if supervision is about the situation, the Assembly of Experts...can decide to remove the Leader but the Leader is not accountable to them. This difference means that the Supreme Leader is the wali of the Assembly of Experts as well, and as long as he is qualified to be the Leader, the Assembly must obey him in everything.”
And yet, in 2015, just before a fresh round of elections for the Assembly of Experts, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani triggered a controversy by saying: “The main task of the Experts is to designate the Supreme Leader, and this they have done. Supervising the Leadership is the job of the Investigations Commission, which both examines institutions under the supervision of the Leader and reports to the Supreme Leader. If necessary...they also give reports to the Assembly of Experts.”
This statement led to harsh criticism by Sadegh Larijani, who was then the head of the judiciary, and a number of other close associates of Khamenei. Larijani called Assembly of Experts’ supervision of the Supreme Leader “baseless”, “wrong” and “illegal”, adding: “There is no such thing in the Constitution called ‘supervising the Leader.’ According to the constitution, it is up to the Assembly of Experts to discern whether the Leader has the necessary qualifications or not. It is clear that ‘discernment’ is in a different category to ‘supervision’ and these two are not interdependent.”
Likewise, Tehran’s Friday Imam Ahmad Khatami said there was no mention of “supervising” the Supreme Leader in the Constitution – but it did bear the word “watching”. However, he then added: “I was reading the deliberations on the Constitution and noticed this question in the text: How can one bring a complaint against the Supreme Leader? One view was that it is the job of the judiciary. The other view was that it is up to the Guardian Council. And yet another view was that it is the job of the Assembly of Experts because they are the ones that choose the Supreme Leader.”
According to several stories, Khamenei himself now believes that the Assembly of Experts does not have the right to supervise his performance. In his eyes, it can only remove him from office it decides that he no longer qualifies.