by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 12, Rajab, 1445)
On March 1, 2024, Iran will hold elections to the Assembly of Experts, officially called Majles-e Khobargan-e Rahbari. It has 88 members, almost all of them mujtahids (scholars highly proficient in religious sciences) that are elected for a term of eight years. The law requires that they must meet at least once every six months.
As its Farsi name suggests, the body is tasked with supervising the performance of the Rahbar (in this case, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamene’i) and to appoint a new one if the need arises. Every year, the Assembly of Experts reviews the performance of the Rahbar and if satisfied, to endorse him for another year in his position. The fact that Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei has held his position since June 1989 indicates that the assembly members have great confidence in how he is managing the affairs of state.
The forthcoming elections are considered important for two reasons. First, the assembly’s current chairman, Ayatullah Ahmed Jannati is 97 years old. A small, frail man, Ayatullah Jannati has indicated that he will not seek re-election. There are many jokes about his name (Jannati) and his age that he accepts with a gracious smile and a twinkle in his eyes (He remarried at the age of 85!).
The second, more important issue is that the Rahbar is now 84 years old. While he is in relatively good health and people wish him a long life, they are cognizant of the fact that whatever time is determined by Allah for one’s departure from this dunya cannot be deferred.
Thus, the incoming assembly may have to take up the weighty matter of choosing a successor to Imam Khamene’i. This is according to article 111 of Iran’s constitution.
Not surprisingly, there is intense speculation about who is likely to succeed him. It is a sensitive issue. Whenever outsiders bring it up among informed circles in Tehran, it draws a blank. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the current first and second deputy chairmen—Ebrahim Raiesi and Hashem Hosseini Bushehri respectively—are automatic favourites to succeed Imam Khamene’i.
When Imam Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the person who succeeded him (Seyyed Khamene’i) was a relatively young and junior member of the assembly. Ayatullah Meshkini was the chairman of the assembly and was the first choice to succeed Imam Khomeini. He refused to take up this responsibility.
There was intense debate in the assembly. The members faced an unprecedented situation. Imam Khomeini was a towering personality and it would be an extremely difficult challenge for any successor to follow him or meet the people’s expectations.
As the debate was underway, it was Hashemi Rafsanjani who mentioned that on one occasion he had heard the Imam [Imam Khomeini] say that Ali Khamene’i would make a good leader. True, Seyyed Khamene’i had served as president for two terms (1981-1989) and was also the head of the Supreme Defence Council during the war that had only recently ended, but his relatively young age (50 years) was considered a handicap, especially in the religious hierarchy.
Seyyed Khamene’i initially declined the offer. He said he was not qualified for the position and that there were others much more qualified than him. It clearly demonstrated his taqwa. While the discussion was underway, Rafsanjani, who was presiding over the assembly debate, again interjected and said that he would like to present the matter for a vote.
Seyyed Khamene’i, before submitting to the vote, asked Rafsanjani the following question. “If I accept the position of Velayat-e Faqih and I issue you an order that is contrary to your opinion or wishes, will you obey it?” Rafsanjani replied: “Yes.”
The question posed to Rafsanjani was critical. He was not only senior in age but had also served as speaker of the Majlis, a very powerful body. Further, he was considered equal in authority and experience to Seyyed Khamene’i. Upon hearing Rafsanjani’s reply, Seyyed Khamene’i relented and said he would accept the assembly’s vote, whatever it is. He was elected unanimously.
Let us return to the present. There are no political parties in Iran, only loosely organized political groups. There are two dominant trends: one is referred to as the Principlists that the west calls “hardliners”, and the other is the nationalists. The west refers to this group as “moderates”. From the west’s point of view, any group that compromises with it is moderate.
The Principlists in Iran are those that want to adhere strictly to the ideals of the revolution and will not compromise on principles, hence their designation. In the Assembly of Experts, we find such groups as the Combatant Ulama Association, the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, and legal experts (aka People’s experts).
In 2014, the Rahbar had warned the Iranian authorities about “influences in the decision-making centres” of the Islamic Republic. He was referring to the nationalists who say the revolution is over and that Iran needs to get back to ‘normalcy’ by compromising with the US and the west. They also oppose Iran’s principled support of the Palestinian people as well as any other people struggling for their fundamental rights.
The Rahbar went one: “They [the nationalists] are waiting for the nation and the political system to fall asleep, and in 10 years, when I am not alive, for example, they would achieve their goals.” This warning, issued 10 years ago, has assumed even greater significance today. It is for Iran’s revolutionary people and leaders to guard against this threat to the revolution from within. The enemies have tried everything in their power from outside but failed. The internal enemy is more dangerous because it comes in a beguiling disguise.
The Assembly of Experts election on March 1 is an important test for the people and their vigilance to safeguard the principles of the Islamic revolution.