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Monday, June 22, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

I have focused on the issue of intra-elite conflict in most of my commentary on Iran, noting that the drama of the street protests is not ultimately where the endgame will be located. A comment to one of my posts yesterday from Matthew Shugart amplified this point by noting that the intra-elite conflict (i.e., the fact that the major players here, i.e., Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, Mousavi and Rafsanjani, et al. are all major long-term elites, and none are outsiders assailing the status quo elites) is also playing out within the state with differing institutional forces in play.

To wit: Khamenei is the Supreme Leader, but Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Theoretically the Assembly of Experts (which consists of 86 clerics) can dismiss the Supreme Leader. As such, not only do we have a situation in which elites are at odds, but one in which key elites have independent power resources that they can attempt to deploy to their own political ends. This does not mean that either will be successful nor that the resources in question are of equal power. Indeed, we may find out exactly how supreme the Supreme Leader is before this is all said and done or we may discover that other Iranian institutions are more robust than we might have otherwise thought.

Back to the Assembly of Experts: Matthew wrote about the last election of the Assembly here back in 2006 and noted the following (the whole post, btw, is worth reading):

The one clear formal role of the Assembly of Experts is to select the Supreme Leader when that position becomes vacant. The Assembly also has the formal power to oversee and even dismiss the sitting Supreme Leader, but no one expects that the current occupant of that position, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in any jeopardy of being removed or seriously restrained by the winners of today’s Experts elections. In the sense that this institution has formal powers of supervision that it is not known to exercise this is, of course, an indicator of less-than-full institutionalization. That is, the relative autonomy of the Supreme Leader from oversight and the apparent security of his (life) tenure suggests “top-down” authority is a good deal stronger than “bottom up,” where the “top” is the Supreme Leader himself. This is a rather unremarkable statement: Almost all popular commentary on Iran assumes that the Supreme Leader is, well, supreme.

So is the Assembly of Experts therefore meaningless? Maybe, but I don’t think so. For one thing, one of the reasons its powers are limited is that the candidates for it–while popularly elected–are vigorously screened by a body known as the Guardian Council, which is a panel of twelve clerics, of whom six are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other six by the elected parliament (Majles). It is easy to look at such top-down screening of candidates for a body like the Assembly of Experts and therefore conclude that the latter must be irrelevant. I would conclude the opposite.

That hypothesis is about to be put to a serious test, it would seem, for while Matthew was looking at succession questions upon Khamenei’s death, a more dramatic scenario may be evolving, as there have been reports that Rafsanjani has gone to the holy city of Qom to meet with clerics of the Assembly of Experts.

Back to the topic of elites, it is worth noting that of the major players in the current events, many have been been president of Iran:

  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was president from 1981-1989
  • Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafanjani was president from 1989-1997.
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the current president.
  • Also, Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997-2005 has made statements sympathetic to the protests: IRAN: Khatami warns of ‘dire consequences’ to crackdown.
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2 Responses to “More on Understanding Iran: The Conflict is not Just Intra-Elite, but Inter-Institutional”

  1. MSS Says:

    And don’t forget that Mirhossein Mousavi himself was Prime Minister (during the Iran-Iraq war), a position that was subsequently abolished.

  2. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Fantasys about Guns and Protests (Rubio’s Tweet and Some Thoughts on Overthrowing Governments) Says:

    [...] Indeed, in the context of Iran this is why I have tried to emphasize the intra-elite (and inter-institutional) conflicts in that case. Street protests alone are never [...]

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