In an important development, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and the current head of the Expediency Council won in a secret ballot to become the third chair in the history of Iran’s Assembly of Experts for the Leadership (Majles-e Khobrgran Rahbari). This Assembly is currently a body of 86 scholars of Islamic law (mujtahedeen). According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran it is tasked with selecting (Article 107 and 111) and dismissing (Article 111) of the supreme leader (rahbar) in case of the inability to perform constitutional duties or determination that from the beginning certain qualifications were not met. Additional responsibilities include the supervision of rahbar’s activities, and promulgation of laws regarding the activities of the Assembly itself.
Hashemi Rafsanjani had received the highest number of votes in the city of Tehran in the December 2006 election for the Assembly but had continued to serve as deputy chair under Ayatollah Ali Meshkini. Meshkini’s death at the end of June opened the floodgate of discussions about who will eventually chair this elected assembly. Speculations abound that there would be a showdown between Hashemi Rafsanjani and the avid supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi.
In reality, however, given Hashemi Rafsanjani’s impressive showing in the December election (he received almost 50 percent more votes in Tehran than the second vote getter) and Mesbah Yazdi’s comparatively poor showing there was really never a match. There was agreement among most Iranian political pundits that if Hashemi Rafsanjani chose to run he would win. The question was whether he would be willing to go for it knowing that his candidacy would spark vitriolic attacks against him and his family in hard-line newspapers and websites.
Well, Hashemi Rafsanjani chose to run, and the hard-line circles went after him with full force in the weeks prior to the closed three-day meeting that began today, even accusing him of lying in his memoir about Ayatollah Khomieni entertaining the possibility of “retiring” the death to America slogan in mid-1980s. Even more interestingly was the fact that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi did not even run since he probably knew he would get embarrassingly few votes. Instead in a strange move on the part of hardliners, Ayatollah Ali Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, decided to run, completely ignoring the conflict of interest that is involved in the head of the Guardian Council, the body that vets the candidates for the Assembly of Experts, running for the leadership of a body whose membership it vets!
The vote was 41 to 33 with 11 abstentions and 1 spoiled ballot. The number of votes received by Hashemi Rafsanjani was lower than the 69 votes he had received earlier in his election as the deputy chair and is certainly a reflection of how divided or contested the Iranian political system is, even among the clerics. But his expected election, despite lower numbers, was still significant precisely because the hardliners had tried so hard to push him out, even going so far as claiming that some of his supporters and friends were going to run against him.
His election is also significant in so far as it should yet again remind everyone that the Iranian system is truly a contested one, admittedly contested among a limited number of people and groups but nevertheless a contested one. Reports of political demise of individuals or political groups should rarely be taken seriously. What should be taken seriously is the competition that exists among relevant political players, making the political game in Iran intense, uncertain in terms of outcome, and open to political comebacks.
Finally his election should also be a reminder about the utter strangeness of the Iranian political system. Hashemi Rafsanjani is now the head of both the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. He is appointed to the former position by Ayatollah Khamenei but as the elected head of the Assembly of Expert he is constitutionally empowered to begin the process of dismissing Ayatollah Khamenei if the latter is deemed unfit to be the leader!!