Elections for Iran’s Assembly of Experts

Elections for Iran’s Assembly of Experts

The debate over Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent) and proper government according to Shi’a Islam is being highlighted by current events in Iran and Iraq. The way things play out will influence the two countries.

On February 26th 2016, elections will be held in Iran for the Assembly of Experts for Leadership (majles-e khobregan-e rahbari), the governmental body responsible for overseeing the Supreme Leader and choosing his successor. Elections were last held in 2006 (elections are held every 8 years) though this round of elections was postponed in order to coincide with the parliamentary elections also being held this coming February.

Those who are interested in running for the Assembly of Experts submit an application to the Guardian Council, which determines who will be allowed as a candidate. In order to qualify as a member of the Assembly of Experts, a person must be a Shi’i mojtahed – someone able to issue their own Islamic legal rulings by means of analogical reasoning and on the basis of having comprehensive knowledge of classical Arabic and Islamic law.

Those qualified have received the authority to issue their own rulings from a Seminary (hawza), generally either the hawza in Qom, Iran, or in Najaf, Iraq. Though the exact usage varies, mojtaheds are referred to as either hojat al-islam or ayatollah, with the latter usually being reserved for the most senior clerics.

As with the candidates of other elections in Iran, it is often argued that the Guardian Council (composed of 6 mojtaheds appointed by the Supreme Leader and 6 lawyers elected by the parliament from among candidates selected by the judiciary) uses its authority to vet candidates for the Assembly of Experts to eliminate people whose political views they oppose.

The successor

Each election for the Assembly of Experts, which currently has 86 members, is more important than the last because as the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76 years old, the likelihood that this group of experts will be the ones responsible for choosing Khamenei’s successor increases.

The Assembly choses the Supreme Leader on the basis of their Islamic scholarship; justice and piety; and political, social, and administrative acumen. They may choose the most outstanding mojtahed, or if none of the jurisprudents has clear superiority then they elect the Supreme Leader from amongst themselves.

Though the list of approved candidates is unreleased, people to watch in the election will likely be the current Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (former chief of the judiciary) and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (former President of Iran and Chairman the Assembly of Experts).

In 2011, Rafsanjani lost his seat as Chairman to Yazdi, but despite this he remains a very influential player in Iranian politics and is one of a handful of people who might succeed Khamenei.

In addition to the leadership of the council, it is also worth paying attention to former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan Khomeini, who has indicated that he will run for the Assembly. This will be the first real involvement of a close member of Ayatollah Khomeini’s family in Iranian elective politics.

The voices in Iraq

Turning to Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is the head of the Najaf hawza and is the world’s leading Shi’i mojtahed, has not stated outright that he disagrees with the Iranian model of clerical rule. But on the basis of his usual position of political quietism, it is clear that he holds a more traditional understanding of Velayat-e Faqih and proper Islamic government.

Yet, over the past year and a half, al-Sistani has become increasingly involved in Iraqi governance. Early in the summer of 2014, he issued a call for Iraqis to join militias in order to defeat ISIS. These militias have become the most effective force against ISIS in Iraq, together with the Kurdish peshmerga in the north.

More recently, al-Sistani has taken to directly interfering in government. The current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is embattled due to ISIS as well as endemic corruption and the growing sectarianism in Iraq, met with al-Sistani in order to enlist his help, and has continued to communicate with him by phone.

Al-Sistani has also taken overt political action beyond these private conversations. For example, he declared his support for the current government in Friday prayers through his representative Ayatollah Ahmed Safi in order to quell mass protests planned in Baghdad. This has helped to strengthen the mandate of the government and has increased his influence over government policy.

Though his son has suggested that this involvement will not be permenant, al-Sistani has continued to offer policy direction to the Iraqi government in his Friday sermons, given through Ayatollah Ahmed Safi.

Shifting interpretations in Iran

The clerical establishment within Shi’ism has traditionally been a force of opposition to government because, according to Shi’i theology, rightful rule belongs to the Twelfth Imam alone, who has gone into occultation. During his absence all rule is usurpation, though its degree of unjustness can vary. Thus, it is the role of the jurisprudents to defend people from the government and to ensure that Islam can continue to be practiced properly under the government of the day.

Ayatollah Khomeini made a radical shift to this interpretation of Islamic government by arguing that it is unclear how long the Twelfth Imam will remain in occultation. If his return is not thought of as something imminent, then the question of the best form of rule in the Imam’s absence becomes important to answer.

Khomeini suggested that because the mojtaheds know Islam and the principles of deriving legal rulings best, they are best-suited to govern in the Imam’s absence. On the basis of this shift in theological understanding, the clerics went from being a sort of loyal opposition to the Shah, to being rulers in their own right.

Iran has served as a center of gravity for the Shi’i world since the Safavid dynasty turned from Sunnism to Shi’ism in 1501, and it has had a significant interest in Iraq economically and as a place of historical importance to Shi’ism since Iraq was a contested borderland between the Safavid and Ottoman Empires.

Thus, Khomeini’s argument has been divisive among Shi’i theologians and has a number of detractors among ayatollahs both in Iran and Iraq.

The system, though, is even less defensible when there is no single cleric with the political acumen to rule who also stands out above the others in Islamic learning. This is the challenge faced by Iran’s next Assembly of Experts.

Al-Sistani is precisely the kind of cleric Khomeini argued should rule, and though he seems opposed to clerical rule in theory, as long as Iraq remains in crisis, Ayatollah al-Sistani will remain the real power behind the government there.

About Author

Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a political risk analyst and historian of the Middle East with a background in Arabic and Persian translation. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and History, with a minor in Persian, from the University of California Berkeley, as well as an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and an MSt in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford.