RealClearWorld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
An Election to Watch in Iran
Underneath the veneer of robed mullahs and chants of "Death to America!" lies a rather dynamic politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran. While final decisions are ostensibly made by the country's most appellate powerbroker, the supreme leader, below his office lies a web of overlapping authority and power; checks placed upon checks that often result in excessive and repetitive governance.
One such body is the Assembly of Experts. A directly elected authority of 80 or more Islamic scholars serving eight-year terms, the Assembly is constitutionally charged with supervising and, if need be, replacing the supreme leader should he fail to meet the obligations of his office.
While sounding rather republican and deliberative on paper, in practice the Assembly's role is somewhat muted. Thanks in large part to the unreasonably high threshold for elective entry established by the powerful Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts is typically comprised of Khamenei loyalists who range from conservative to even more conservative.
Much of that, however, could change in 2016. With the Assembly set to hold an election in February, rumblings have already begun of possible candidates and electoral alliances. Most prominent and potentially earth-rattling of them all is Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic's founding father and first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini.
A somewhat subdued political figure, the 43-year old Khomeini currently serves as a cleric in the holy city of Qom. And while his political positions cannot be found on a website or tri-fold flier, the young Khomeini has repeatedly praised this year's nuclear agreement with the West and has spoken out against extremism and the role of the military in politics (an indirect shot at influential Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani).
Khomeini's entry into the election has left some wondering if a centrist alliance among allies of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is preparing to push for greater influence in the country. "The triangle of Khomeini-Rouhani-Rafsanjani has already been formed," said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist politician, in an interview with Tehran Bureau.
But Khomeini faces an uphill battle in his bid to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. "The young Khomeini is likely to face serious attacks from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and what remains of the mobs who supported former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," said Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in an email to the Mideast Memo.
Institutional biases also stand in Khomeini's way, even should he win a seat on the Assembly. While, constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts will be responsible for selecting the country's next supreme leader, the real decision, argues Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation, will likely be made in the proverbial backrooms of Iranian politics.
"Could the centrists under Rouhani or Rafsanjani recapture the Assembly? It's possible. But the conservative makeup of the Assembly and the Guardian Council's role in vetting candidates will ensure a conservative and pro-Khamenei Assembly well into the future," Nader told the Memo. "Factional infighting and institutional interests are more likely to dominate succession than the constitutional powers provided to the Assembly."
In a 2011 study coauthored by Nader, he and his RAND colleagues highlight the significance of Khamenei's powerful network of clerics and seminarians throughout the country, and how it allows the ayatollah to exert himself in Iranian governance -- especially in the selection of his successor. These often informal networks allow Khamenei to maneuver and manipulate Iran's bloated bureaucracy, serving as an unofficial check against the democratic gains of others.
In addition to internal politics, the external geopolitical climate will also affect the selection of the next supreme leader. "Regional tensions tend to help the IRGC's proteges, while detente between the Islamic Republic and the U.S. and in particular Saudi Arabia may strengthen Rouhani and Rafsanjani's candidate," said Alfoneh.
And just as the war that started 35 years ago today between Iraq and Iran left the latter on a semi-permanent war footing, so too will the residual effects of this year's nuclear deal. Iranian politics makes for a fascinating spectator sport, but for now, it's still a game of wait and see.
Around the Region
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