realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
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
"For many years, the west's preferred outcome in Syria has been a victory by the moderate Syrian opposition. But the idea that the moderates can win a three-cornered military fight with the Assad regime and the jihadis and then hold on to power in Syria is a fantasy.
"There are liberal and democratic forces in Syria. But they are not going to win on the battlefield. Their only chance of getting somewhere is if a political process can be started. That means establishing a ceasefire and working towards UN-sponsored elections."
Amman on the ground. It was widely reported earlier this year that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan intended to train Syrian tribesmen to take the fight to the Islamic State. It would now appear that their efforts are yielding fruit. NOW News has the story:
"An anti-regime tribal coalition that is financed by Amman and seeks to roll back the threat of ISIS in southern Syria has emerged in recent weeks, a pro-rebel outlet reported on Monday.
"Dubai based Al-Aan TV published a report profiling the Collective of Free Southern Tribesmen, a newly re-named rebel conglomeration that is fighting ISIS in southern Syria's Al-Lajat Plain.
"The Collective on September 4 publicly announced that it was beginning an offensive against ISIS in Al-Lajat, which is located on the northeastern edge of the Daraa province near the Druze-populated Suweida region.
"Originally called The Free Men of the South, 80% of the group's fighters are from tribes in Suweida, Daraa, Quneitra and southern rural Damascus, according to the group's spokesperson Mohammad Adnan."
"Netanyahu is sending a signal to Washington. Russian involvement in Syria is introducing a new and unexpected player in the world war between Sunnis and Shiites, a war being waged on territories that were once Syria as well as on parts of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other places. While the West vacillates and struggles with existential torment over what to do, how to do it and whether something should be done against these brutes, Putin comes along. He plants a firm Russian boot on the ground in Syria, resoundingly making his presence known.
"When an Israeli prime minister rushes to meet Putin before the Americans and Europeans, and takes along with him Israel's highest-ranking security personages, this is a clear Israeli signal: We are also here. No one has a monopoly and if necessary, Israel will even talk with Russia and try to create joint leverage."
The two countries' top defense chiefs also met during the trip to discuss military coordination.
"As the Jewish month of Tishrei approaches with its many holidays ... the lights in many ‘ghost apartments' go on, and the voices (mainly in English) of the new neighbors -- most of them rich Jews from Australia, North America or Europe -- can be heard. They come to their vacation apartments in Jerusalem with their entire families to celebrate the holidays here. As soon as the holidays are over, they pack up and go back home, not to return until 11 months later, toward the end of the summer. Their apartments remain empty the rest of the year".