Iran’s new Assembly of Experts ready to pick new Supreme Leader

An important institutional body with an 8-year term, this collection of ageing and sclerotic clerics is meant to wield real power by overseeing the Supreme Leader. In practice, they simply nod along.

Voting was held for a new Iranian Assembly of Experts last month. The 88-member body is tasked with overseeing the Supreme Leader and choosing his replacement
Voting was held for a new Iranian Assembly of Experts last month. The 88-member body is tasked with overseeing the Supreme Leader and choosing his replacement

Iran’s new Assembly of Experts ready to pick new Supreme Leader

When a country’s head of government dies in a dramatic helicopter crash, one naturally expects a bit of shock and changes to the schedule. Yet nothing, it seems, can stop the bureaucratic clock of the Islamic Republic.

On 21 May, Iran’s Assembly of Experts began its meeting as scheduled, but in sombre mood. President Ebrahim Raisi and Tabriz’s Friday prayer leader Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, two sitting Assembly members, had died in the crash. Its First Vice-Chairman, Raisi had been a possible future chairman of the powerful body.

With his death, the job went to Mohammad Ali Movaheddi Kermani, who has been a member of the Assembly for 41 years. Kermani got 55 of the 86 votes. Results for those who did not win are not published.

The Assembly of Experts is one of the strangest elected bodies in the world. Although its members get voted in, they are supposed to be only highly qualified religious authorities. Their most important job is to oversee the role of Iran’s Supreme Leader and, when necessary, choose his replacement.

Irene Blasco
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May 2024. He was also a senior member of the Assembly of Experts, whose members were recently re-elected.

The Assembly consists almost entirely of Shiite clerics, although there are Sunni members from Sunni-majority provinces such as Kurdistan, Sistan, and Baluchistan. In the past, there have been non-clerical Shiite experts of Islamic law, but none at present.

Picking the leader

Seasoned religious experts, they are tasked with the eventual replacement of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, at 85, is entering his dotage. Their choice is of global interest. The current Assembly, which has an eight-year reign, is likely to be the one to pick his replacement, unless he lives an unusually long life.

The position of Supreme Leader is based on a highly unusual Shiite theory known as Welayah al-Faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist). This owes as much to the Islamic tradition as it does to Plato’s Republic, with its philosopher-king.

President Raisi had been a possible future chairman of the Assembly. With his death, the job went to Mohammad Ali Movaheddi Kermani, aged 93.

The theory gives a great deal of power to a high-ranking Shiite cleric. But Khamenei's rule has been marked with neither Plato nor the Quran. Nor does he owe it to any Assembly or experts.

He has ruled with an iron fist and made shrewd political alliances, most importantly, within the clerical establishment, and with the vast military-economic-political behemoth that undergirds much of the power structure in today's Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

There is something fascinatingly paradoxical about Khamenei's rule. He holds close to absolute power in today's Iran but has never dispensed with the elaborate institutions of the Islamic Republic such as the Assembly of Experts, the presidency, or the parliament.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Iran's Revolutionary Guards is sprawling and powerful, with influence in economics and politics. Most think it will want a say in deciding the next Supreme Leader.

He knows that, even at their most restricted, they offer a sense of constitutionality and of elite buy-in. Yet he has used his influence over another clerically-dominated body to strip the meaning out of all elections. That is the Guardian Council.

Appointing candidates

A body of six jurists and six clerics, all of whom are appointed directly or indirectly by Khamenei, the Guardian Council can mothball any legislation that it does not like. It also has the power to vet candidates for all elections in the Islamic Republic.

Since 2020, under Khamenei's shadow, it has used this power to limit all election candidates to only the most hardcore supporters of the establishment. This even extends to the Assembly of Experts. Their elections in March of this year were even more of a sham than normal.

Just eight years ago, in 2016, the Assembly's elections were competitive enough for millions of Iranians to vote enthusiastically. In so doing, they voted out some of the most hardline allies of Khamenei, which he was less than pleased about.

This time around, hundreds of highly qualified clerics were barred from running by the Guardian Council. At the end, only 144 clerics were allowed to run for 88 seats, an average of 1.6 person per seat.

Under Khamenei's shadow, the Guardian Council limits all elections, including for the Assembly of Experts, to only the most hardcore candidates. 

Those barred from running included Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran from 2013-21 and a long-serving member of the Assembly. Mahmoud Alavi, an ayatollah and Rouhani's former intelligence minister, was likewise forbidden.

Wise to a rigged game, reform-minded voters stayed at home. This even led to some less-than-hardline conservatives losing the seat on the Assembly.  

Such was the fate of Sadeq Larijani, Iran's former Chief Justice and current head of the regime's Expediency Council. He comes from a key clerical family from Qom. His brother, Ali, is a former speaker of the parliament. Both were barred from running for the position of Iranian president in 2021.

Atta Kenare/AFP
Elections in Iran are limited only to the hard-line candidates that the Guardian Council allows to stand.

Alavi and the two Larijani brothers appear to have suffered because of their alliance to Rouhani, who fell out with Khamenei during his presidency, the Supreme Leader believing that Rouhani was being too soft in nuclear negotiations with the West.

Kermani's sycophancy

The Assembly has an average age of 65. Of its 88 Experts, 52 were born in the 1950s or earlier. Six were born were before the 1940s. Only one, the youngest, was born in the 1980s. At 93, Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani is not the Assembly's oldest member. Ali Jannati, its previous chairman, is only three years off a century.

A nonagenarian chairman, Kerman is typical of Iran's political clerical caste. A long-lasting political activist, he heads the central council of Militant Clergy Society. Founded in the lead-up to the 1979 revolution, it brings together pro-Khomeini supporters.

Today, he has long lost any independent political streak. Like most of the clerical caste, he competes in sycophancy for Khamenei, the mirror-opposite of the supposed role of the Assembly as a supervisory body that keeps the leader in check.

In a 2018 Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, Kermani shocked many by claiming that Khamenei governs just like the messianic Imam Mahdi would. Such words seemed sacrilegious to the 12th Shia Imam who, according to Shia belief, is in occultation and will one day return to usher in end-times.

His lack of spine showed after the 2016 elections for the Assembly, when he claimed that he had not wanted any part in the reformist-backed electoral list endorsed by his old comrade-in-arms, the centrist Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Kermani distanced himself from an old friend because Rafsanjani is hated by the hardliners due to his alliance with reformists and rivalry with Khamenei. Ironically, Kermani only sits on the Assembly because he was included in the list he now decries.

Candidates on manoeuvres

Kermani will now lead the Assembly for two years. His two deputies, Hashem Hoseini Bushehri and Alireza Arafi, are even more bullish ad hardline than he is. Yet some Assembly members are more important than others, since some sit on a secretive committee whose job is to pick candidates for the Supreme Leader.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a crowd on 3 June during a ceremony marking the 35th death anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum in Tehran.

According to two sources who spoke to Reuters, Raisi has already been taken off this list six months ago, due to his disastrous reign as president. Perhaps, but all such talk is speculative. The truth is known only to a very small number of people.

One point does remain true, however. When the hour arrives, the assembly will not be entirely free to act independent of all the military, economic and political elites whose infighting has dominated much of Iranian politics in recent years.

A reminder of this cat-scratching was former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attendance at the Assembly's inaugural session wearing a white shirt. This was seen as a show of disrespect towards the recently deceased Raisi.

When the hour arrives, the Assembly will not be free of the military, economic and political elites whose infighting dominates Iranian politics.

Amene Sadat Zabihpour, a hardline anchor on state TV known for her 'interviews' of political prisoners in captivity, called Ahmadinejad a "cheapo" for his choice of attire. His supporters responded by attacking her vociferously, even accusing her of illicit sexual relations while she visited New York for UN summits.

Iranian presidential candidates attend an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran June 20, 2024.

Some of Ahmadinejad's supporters have long been openly anti-clerical. It is not surprising that Khamenei, via the Guardian Council, has now barred Ahmadinejad's presidential candidacy three times since Rouhani succeeded him in 2013. The latest was last month, when he bid to succeed Raisi.

This gives a flavour of the infighting that is sure to come to a head when Khamenei dies and the job of electing a successor passes down to the Assembly.

If the cowed experience of Kermani is anything to go by, the aged clerics are unlikely to assert much power in their own right. It is more likely that they will be influenced by factions outside the Assembly, many of whom will have guns not turbans.

These ageing mullahs are not Iran's future, but its past.

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