Elections in Iran
About This Event

On December 15, the Islamic Republic will hold its fifth election for the Assembly of Experts, a body of eighty-six clerics, who have the power to appoint Iran’s supreme leader and supervise his activities. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascent to the presidency in June 2005, radicals in Iran have consolidated their Listen to Audio


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power over much of the nation. Veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hard-line clerics now run much of Iran’s public sector, including universities and government agencies. This election could cement the radicals’ rise and help deliver Ahmadinejad’s radical vision for Iran and the Middle East.

What is at stake in the elections? Could they catapult Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, into the position of supreme leader, thus ousting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? What does it all mean for democracy in Iran?

Please join AEI for a conference on these and other questions. Speakers will include Mohebat Ahdiyyih, senior Iran analyst at the Open Source Center (formerly, Foreign Broadcast Information Service); Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and A. William Samii, author of the weekly Iran Report and an Iran analyst. Danielle Pletka, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at AEI, will moderate.

Agenda
8:45 a.m.
Registration
9:00
Panelists:
Mohebat Ahdiyyih, Open Source Center
Mehdi Khalaji, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
A. William Samii, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Moderator:
Michael Rubin, AEI
10:30
Adjournment
Event Summary

December 2006

Elections in Iran

On December 15, the Islamic Republic will hold its fifth election for the Assembly of Experts, a body of eighty-six clerics who have the power to appoint Iran’s supreme leader and supervise his activities. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascent to the presidency in June 2005, radicals in Iran have consolidated their power over much of the nation. Veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hard-line clerics now run much of Iran’s public sector, including universities and government agencies. This election could cement the radicals’ rise and help deliver Ahmadinejad’s radical vision for Iran and the Middle East.

What is at stake in the elections? Could they catapult Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, into the position of supreme leader, thus ousting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? What does it all mean for democracy in Iran?

These and other questions were the focus of a December 12, 2006, AEI panel discussion.

A. William Samii
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The constitutional duties of the Assembly of Experts are to supervise the performance of the supreme leader, to dismiss him if he does not perform adequately, and to appoint new supreme leaders. The assembly also plays an important informal role in the government. Assembly members are often consulted on various issues; because many members also belong to other government bodies, they can exploit their dual roles to pressure the Ayatollah. The experts--top Islamic scholars--are able to pressure the Ayatollah further because of his dubious religious credentials.

The upcoming assembly election is important symbolically. Fundamentalists, who won municipal elections in 2003, parliamentary elections in 2004, and the presidential election in 2005, are seeking the last outpost they do not already control. A victory for them would be a death knell for reformists.

The election is a manifestation of the conflict between the first and second post-revolutionary generations. Members of the first generation matured politically in their opposition to the monarchy and in trying to guide the republic in its first two decades. The second generation, symbolized by Ahmadinejad, was shaped by participation in the Iran-Iraq War and in working with the system during the 1990s.

Qualifying standards for assembly candidates have become increasingly stringent. In the upcoming election, 163 of 495 aspirants were approved as candidates. There is a direct relationship between candidate eligibility and voter turnout: the more restrictive eligibility regulations have become, the lower turnout has fallen.

Mehdi Khalaji
Washington Institute for Near East Policy

In theory, the Assembly of Experts can be considered the most important body in the Islamic Republic. In practice, it is a disabled body. The experience of the last two decades proves that the institution cannot do its job of supervising the supreme leader.

In the last year of his life, Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri, even though it was the assembly’s constitutional role, not his, to do so. The assembly meets only once per year, behind closed doors. According to sources who serve on the assembly, its members simply discuss the constitution in general terms. They do not do anything important.

The assembly has been disabled from the time it was formed. According to the constitution, the Guardian Council must approve candidates in any election, including that for the assembly. Six Guardian Council members are appointed by the Ayatollah. Thus, the Ayatollah can exercise indirect but full control over the assembly, even though the Assembly is supposed to supervise him. In this election, like the last one, turnout will be very low: people do not expect the election to produce change since the Ayatollah will again control the assembly’s composition.

The assembly is not important. Last time, only twelve of its members, not the whole body, picked the new supreme leader. Ayatollahs are much more important than ordinary assembly members.

Mohebat Ahdiyyih
Open Source Center

The primary role of local councils is to patronize grassroots supporters. Sometimes, the councils can be more important. Ahmadinejad was the campaign manager for a new political group that emerged in the 2003 council elections. He became mayor of Tehran, then ascended to the presidency. Some hope the same process could happen again.

There is electoral competition in Tehran--more than elsewhere--because of extensive Guardian Council candidate disqualifications. Only in Tehran have reformers been allowed to run. The regime might think that they make the elections appear more legitimate by allowing reformers to run in one place rather than simply disqualifying them everywhere.

Electoral laws are changing to become even more favorable to hardliners. Their grip on power is almost complete, and reformers are running out of chances. For a time, Iran essentially had two governments: the visible one, in which reformers could air their views, and the secret one dominated by fundamentalists, who held all the power. It now appears as if the two are becoming one.

One reason that hardliners won the last local election was low turnout, which some reports pegged as low as 20 percent. The first council election, under Khatami in 2000, was met with great enthusiasm, but that has diminished since. Still, if the Tehran council becomes important again, it will impact the 2008 assembly election and the 2009 presidential election.

AEI intern Daniel Dale prepared this summary.

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