Iran’s Political Future Uncertain as Top Official Dies

October 29, 2014
Reza HaghighatNejad
6 min read
Iran’s Political Future Uncertain as Top Official Dies

The race to fill one of Iran’s top political jobs is underway, a week on from the death of Assembly of Experts leader Ayatollah Kani.

Kani’s successor will be decided by election in February 2015, when all 86 members of the assembly are elected or re-elected. Because the job commands such influence within Iran — and impacts on how Iran engages with the international community — hardline politicians have taken steps to ensure the right candidates are pushed to the fore. The election coincides with national parliamentary elections.

Over the last week, hardliner assembly member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said in two separate interviews that Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, pictured above, the assembly’s interim chairman, should succeed Ayatollah Kani, who died on October 21 after being in a coma for several months. Known for both his pragmatism and his hardline affiliation, Kani lead the assembly for three years.  

The Assembly of Experts commands huge influence, but its most important task is to select the Supreme Leader, an opportunity that arises very rarely — the last time being in 1989, when Ayatollah Khamenei won the vote to succeed the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. With Khamenei rapidly ageing and his health uncertain, the assembly chairman job is potentially even more important than it has been in recent years. Though there has been much speculation as to who will lead the assembly, discussions about who will be the next Supreme Leader are even more widespread.

The next assembly chairman will have a decisive influence on the future of Iran, and on how it engages with the international community. The age of the chairman will matter too. Three frontrunners — Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Yazdi and Hashemi Rafsanjani — are all in their eighties, representing knowledge and experience, but also raising concerns over how long any of them will remain in the job. 

Moderates believe they are gaining influence on Iran’s political stage, bolstered by the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in 2013. If they win a majority in parliamentary elections or in the Assembly of Experts — whether by winning the chairmanship or increasing their numbers in the assembly—their influence will increase considerably and add another layer of complexity to the process of deciding who will take on the mantle of Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

Hardliner support has mainly fallen to Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati. But Yazdi suffers from poor health, and Jannati has not expressed an interest in taking on the leadership, though he did hope to be appointed as chairman in 2011, when Mahdavi Kani was elected.


The frontrunners are:

Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 66, interim chairman of the assembly; formerly chief justice of Iran (1999 and 2009). Shahroudi, who was born in Iraq, has close ties to Ayatollah Khamenei, both politically and in terms of their interpretation of Shia jurisprudence. A member of the Guardian and Expediency Councils, he is also the head of the Supreme Council for Resolving Conflicts and Regulating Relations between the Three Branches of Government. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, he was the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and so has considerable influence among Shias there. His political and religious views chime well with hardliners, though he has worked hard not to affiliate himself with either the hardliner or reformist camp.

Shahroudi owes his political gains largely to Khameini. But in recent years his attempts to establish a more powerful organizational presence in the holy city of Qom have not been popular, and some influential figures resent his support for political figures close to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, there were allegations of widespread corruption during Shahroudi’s time as chief of the judiciary. In recent years, Sadegh Larijani’s judiciary has targeted and prosecuted officials close to Shahroudi on corruption and other charges.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 80, former president; former chairman of the Assembly of Experts (2007-2011); current chairman of the Expediency Council. He has also held a number of other positions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although Rafsanjani is the most prominent moderate candidate for the job, hostility towards him within the Assembly of Experts is considerable. After the contentious presidential election of 2009, in which he sided with reformists, hardliners set out to replace him as the chairman of the assembly. In 2011, they succeeded, and are now willing to do anything to prevent his return, though reformist media has been vocal about the possibility. Rafsanjani has yet to publicly express his desire for the candidacy. If he does run, hardliners will undoubtedly increase pressure on President Rouhani’s administration, and could even resume efforts to prosecute Rafsanjani’s brother, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, formerly arrested on bribery and other corruption charges and released from prison in 2012.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, 88, a member of the assembly and the chairman of the Guardian Council. Jannati told a television news program last week that he had been approached to become a candidate but declined. Aside from hardliners, he has not attracted much support among assembly members.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, 83, former chief justice between 1989 and 1999.

Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani, 83, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, 80, member of the assembly and an ultraconservative cleric who believes that Islam and democratic elections are incompatible. Often described as the “theoretician of the radicals,” he is a member of the assembly’s council of directors. Like Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, the assembly member who spoke to the media about his support for Shahroudi, Yazdi belongs to the second tier of politicians, popular with hardliners but without enough political weight to become chairman.

Elections will determine assembly membership for the next eight years, and with it, the future political landscape and its various power struggles. The current frontrunners are all hampered in some way, whether it be ill health, controversy or isolation. And other figures can influence the political tide, too, such as Chief Justice Larijani.

Most believe Shahroudi has the best chance, not least because he has avoided being pulled into factional in-fighting. But he is also at a disadvantage, held back by a lack of grassroots support despite his ties to the Supreme Leader. In the 1970s, Shahroudi dreamt of toppling Saddam Hussein. Thirty years on, he may be able to realize another dream: deciding who succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei as the Supreme Leader of Iran.

“Many people are imagining that it will the Fifth Assembly of Experts [the one that will be elected in February] that will be responsible for choosing the [next] Supreme Leader,” Ahmad Khatami said in one recent interview. Whether this is true remains to be seen: if Khamenei lives into his mid-eighties, the next assembly will not hold the deciding vote. But recent speculation has once again revealed the evident fault lines in Iranian politics — and society. Without a doubt, they will be further pronounced in the run up to February’s election.



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