February 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body of clerics that ostensibly elects Iran's supreme leader and supervises his work, today opened its fourth term since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Members of the assembly were elected to their eight-year terms on December 15. The assembly's authority in overseeing the supreme leader would appear to give it a decisive role in Iranian politics, but as with other institutions in the Islamic Republic, its power is more theoretical than actual.
Lots Of Religious Expertise
After today's opening and the reading of a message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini was reelected chairman of the assembly, garnering 71 of 80 votes cast. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi were then elected first and second deputy chairman, respectively.
In a system some might see as a modern "caesaropapism," Iran's supreme leader is to be a judge enjoying many and ideally every quality needed for him to exercise his political and religious supremacy.
This means that those who supervise him must be "experts" in both religion and politics, though past members of the Assembly of Experts have consisted principally of clerics rather than civilian technocrats.
The Guardians Council -- the body of jurists that must approve candidates for most elected offices in Iran -- has previously rejected a great many aspiring members of the assembly. That includes many incumbents of the last assembly because it was decided that they had an insufficient knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence.
The issue of membership has been a contentious one between reformers and conservatives: if the leader is to be held accountable to the people through the Assembly of Experts -- as reformers claim is intended by the constitution -- then the experts must include laymen and politicians in order to see if the leader is performing his secular duties adequately.
This partial exercise of the current assembly's formal duties was evident in remarks by a new assembly member from Lorestan in southwestern Iran. Mohammad Taqi Shahrokhi told ILNA on February 17 that members of the Assembly of Experts are not yet permitted to supervise the work of bodies working directly under the leader's authority, "though there are people inclined to supervise this sector." He was perhaps referring to bodies like state television and radio, or several immense financial and charitable foundations thought to answer to the supreme leader rather than parliament.
Supervising the leader might imply supervising the work of bodies under his authority, but that is not the interpretation current members have of the scope of their power and the supreme leader's authority. Shahrokhi said the body would have to vote for powers to supervise such agencies.
Last December's elections are thought to have consolidated the position of veteran clerics and establishment figures -- like Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- against a current of political radicalism associated with Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, considered an ideological mentor of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Choosing A Successor
With a little more than 1.5 million votes, Rafsanjani received the most votes in Tehran, followed by the body's ailing president, Ayatollah Meshkini, while Mesbah-Yazdi came in sixth, with a little more than half of Rafsanjani's votes.
This balance of power -- if it is real, because the assembly usually works in private -- may prove important in shaping coming decisions, especially over one issued on February 17.
Mokhtar Mohammad Ali Aminian, an assembly member from Gilan in northern Iran, told ILNA that day that "choosing a successor for the leader is an issue that may be discussed from this session onward." He said the assembly will consider the matter this way: if there are two candidates for the leadership, both learned in theology, which would be the better choice, the more pious candidate or the one with a better grasp of statesmanship?
The issue of succession to the leadership may be topical at a time of pressures on Iran over foreign policy and its controversial nuclear program. Also, perhaps after recent speculation -- though publicly dismissed -- about the poor state of Ayatollah Khamenei's health.
If the next supreme leader is elected -- or "found" as some members believe -- in this assembly, then it is very important who will be searching and selecting.
A provisional presiding board was also chosen today, with the two oldest members serving as president and vice president and the two youngest members as presidium secretaries. Members must then vote by secret balloting for a presidium, with winners elected by a relative majority, ISNA added.
The assembly is obliged to meet for two days, at least twice a year.
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