Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Iran's New Assembly of Experts

Among the best analyses of Iran's recent elections are those by Farideh Farhi and Shervin Malekzadeh.  The conduct of the elections themselves is as potentially significant as the results.  Both Farhi and Malekzadeh highlight the role of alliances and political pragmatism.  As Malekzadeh reports:
Everywhere I went in Tehran last week, I heard the same theme: moderation and standing firm before the forces of radicalism. My interlocutors expressed a sense of resignation if not outright cynicism toward the elections and what they might bring in terms of needed change to Iran. Participants in Iranian elections realize that this is not liberal democracy. At the same time, just as they had in 2013, many Iranians expressed to me their overwhelming conviction that voting was the only way forward if Iran wanted to avoid the fate of its neighbors in the region, above all that of Syria. Participating in a system, no matter how flawed, was better than having no system at all.
And as Farhi says:
More than anything else, the two recent elections suggested that the time is over when one side thought it could get rid of the other side for good or even temporarily through force or a highly manipulated electoral process. Not that some sort of force majeure was not tried. The Guardian Council, dominated by clerics who themselves were candidates, unabashedly disqualified most opponents who could have won through their name recognition.
But their opponents, instead of withdrawing or sulking, made the strategic decision to participate in an alliance that had proven successful in receiving 51 percent of the vote in the 2013 presidential election. And then they made the tactical decision to connect together, particularly in the city of Tehran, by repeatedly asking voters to support everyone on the so-called 30+16 lists (the first for the parliament and the second for the Assembly of Experts). This was tactically necessary because, in the case of RSG’s Tehran parliament list, only a few top names were known. The rest were unknown in terms of their names or points of view and had to be voted in blind based on who was on top of the list or who supported the list. The Assembly’s list also had unknown names, but problematically a few names were connected with dark parts of the Islamic Republic’s history (i.e. early post-revolutionary executions and the murder of intellectuals and dissidents). So voters had to be convinced that voting for the whole list, while unsavory, was worth the elimination of others deemed even nastier.
The defeat of hardliners for the Assembly of Experts was especially striking:
Rohani and centrist ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani easily won seats in the Assembly of Experts, the chamber of clerics that chooses and supervises Iran's most powerful official, the supreme leader. 
In all, reformist-backed candidates claimed 52 of the assembly's 88 seats, according to the Interior Ministry, including 15 of 16 races in Tehran. In doing so, they managed to unseat several prominent hard-liners, including the current chief of the assembly, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.
My sense is that over the past couple of decades, Iran's conservatives have been most reluctant to allow Reformists a shot at the Assembly of Experts and the Council of Guardians, the latter being the body which vets candidates and legislation.  Two points about this past election stand out, though.  One is that "reformist" has in some ways been defined sharply rightward since Khatami's presidency.  Hassan Rouhani may offer verbal support to parts of Khatami's cultural agenda, but he has never acted on it and his real roots are close to Supreme Leader Khamene'i.  The second is that Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi was a rival to Khamene'i.  It may be that Khamene'i has decided that a tactical Rouhani-style alliance with reformists is the best way to eliminate rivals to his right and maintain his allies in power.

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