The Iranian election nobody's talking about

In Iran, an election that could prove more consequential than the July 2013 Presidential race will take place on March 10 for Chairman of the Assembly of Experts (majles-e khobregan).  It is difficult to make accurate predictions in politics; with respect to Iran, it is nearly impossible unless one pays close attention to the composition and leadership of the Assembly of Experts because they are responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader (vali-e faghih-e). It is a distinct possibility that because of his advanced age and recent prostate surgery, the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, could die. The rumored frontrunner is Iran’s former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a “pragmatic conservative” who has friendly ties to Reformists.

The leadership of the Assembly of Experts opened up in late October 2014 when it’s Chairman, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, died after he fell into a coma that resulted from a stroke he suffered in June. Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, a conservative (but not a hardliner), replaced him on an interim basis.   

Rafsanjani served two terms as President (1989-1997), and pursued (and lost) the race for a third, non-consecutive term in 2005 to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In 2013, the Council of Guardians (shura-ye neghaban) rejected Rafsanjani’s Presidential candidacy.  Despite these setbacks, he is believed to be one of Iran’s wealthiest and most powerful men.   He currently heads the Expediency Council (majima-e tashkhis-e maslahat-e nazam).  This body reconciles legislative disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, but also has the power to legislate independently of the Supreme Leader or bodies such as the Majlis.  (Rafsanjani headed the Assembly of Experts once before, from 2007 to 2011, only to be replaced in an attempt to humiliate him by hardliners).   

Given the power and wealth Rafsanjani has already accrued, if it were not for Khamanei’s advanced age and illness, it would appear puzzling why Rafsanjani would want to take on the added responsibility of running the Assembly of Experts.  Unlike the Expediency Council (majima-e tashkhis-e maslahat-e nazam), it has limited ability to legislate on its own.  Unlike the Council of Guardians it cannot vet candidates for public office, either.  Article 107 of the Iranian constitution invests the Assembly of Experts with the task of electing, overseeing, and, if necessary, dismissing the Supreme Leader.  The Assembly of Experts has 86 seats elected from thirty electoral districts, and its members elect one of their own as Chairman.   However, the Guardian Council is responsible for vetting prospective candidates for the Assembly as well as other public offices; many are frequently vetoed. 

Other candidates are believed to want the Chairmanship as well.  Speculation centers on Shahroudi wanting to keep the job for himself, as well as Ayatollah Abbas Vaeze Tabasi, Khamanei’s representative to Mashhad, throwing his hat into the ring.  Like Rafsanjani, he is one of Iran’s wealthiest men, believed to be worth upwards of $1 billion, because of his control of the Holy Estate of Imam Reza, the eighth of the twelve Imams.  Tabasi also holds seats in the Assembly of Experts as well as the Expediency Council.  It is believed that Hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s substitute Friday Prayer Leader, also wants to run for the leadership of the Assembly.

The death of Khamanei would likely bring the ongoing nuclear talks to a halt until a suitable successor could be chosen.  Many have already speculated over potential replacements for Khamenei.  However, the composition and leadership of the Assembly of Experts is a critical intervening variable. 

The transition from Khomeini to Khamanei was nearly seamless but it is unclear whether the next transition will be as stable.  It is speculated that Rafsanjani may want the Supreme Leadership for himself or one of his allies.  In this scenario, he could use the Chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts as a springboard to Iran’s top office and open the way for a rapprochement with the West.  Should the leadership of the Assembly go to a hardliner, any hope of reopening Iran in the wake of Khamanei’s departure will be dashed.  A third scenario to entertain is what happens if Khamanei passes away shortly after a comprehensive nuclear deal is struck.  In this scenario, the composition of the Assembly becomes even more important for whoever it chooses as the new Supreme Leader will determine whether Iran will comply with any bargain struck with the P5+1. 

The race for the leadership of the Assembly of Experts has not received much coverage in the West.  However, it not only has far-reaching consequences for Iran, but for the prospective nuclear deal being negotiated with the P5+1.