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Assembly of Experts

The Khobregan (Assembly of Experts), meets for one week every year, consists of 86 "virtuous and learned" clerics elected by the public to eight-year terms. It was required by law to meet in Qom, but up to now its sessions have been held in Tehran out of convenience. Nevertheless, the Secretariat of the Assembly of Experts is based in Qom. Like presidential and parliamentary elections, the Council of Guardians determines who can run for a seat in the assembly. Members of the Assembly of Experts in turn elect the Supreme Leader from within their own ranks and periodically reconfirm him. The Assembly has never been known to challenge any of the Supreme Leader's decisions. Meetings have been generally held behind closed doors and little was known about the decisions that were made. This secrecy continued to be a sore point for many observers.

The constitution provided for the convening of an Assembly of Experts (Majlis-e Khobregan) to choose a Supreme Leader in the event of Imam khomeini's demise, and to determine if the leader, or any member of the Leadership Council, was capable of fulfilling his duties. Originally the constitution allowed for the selection of either a single individual to the post of Supreme Leader or a council of appropriate individuals to run the post. The selection process of the Assembly of Experts would be done by continuously reviewing his/their performance (Articles 108 and 111). Later revisions to the constitution removed the potential for a council of individuals, making it so only a single individual could be elected by the Assembly as Supreme Leader.

The idea of an assembly of experts was born out of the post-revolution debates concerning a constituent assembly for drawing up a constitution. When the majority of the electorate voted for an Islamic republic in preference over a monarchical regime in a two-way referendum in April 1979, it was decided to submit drafts of the constitution to an assembly for debating and later putting the outcome to a referendum.

Some political groups and the provisional government stood for convention of a full constituent assembly with over 600 members from all over the country. However, the clerical leaders in particular believed that a constituent assembly would waste much time, and would prolong the debates for months or even for years. Imam Khomeini intervened in favour of the second group, and ordered elections for a smaller assembly, called the Assembly of Experts, with over 70 members.

Consequently, the First Assembly of Experts was convened and after debating a draft constitution, which the provisional government submitted, and amending it extensively, put the final product to a referendum on 2 December 1979. The assembly was then disbanded.

The balloting for the Second Assembly of Experts, as required by the constitution, was held in December 1982 for the election of 83 members, of whom 76 were elected in the first round and the rest in the second round. A number of members passed away, being substituted in April 1988 by-elections.

Members of the Assembly of Experts do not face any restrictions concerning their engagement in other occupations, such as membership of parliament or holding government positions. As a result, a good number of leading officials have also been members of the Assembly of Experts. Unlike the First Assembly of Experts, only clerics were members of the second assembly.

During the Assembly of Experts election in October 1998, public participation was around 46 percent. This was up from the approximately 37 percent in 1990, but down from the approximately 77 percent in 1982. Coming a year after reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's 1997 presidential victory, there had been speculation that reform-minded individuals would do well in the 1998 race. However, the Guardians Council, which determined candidates' eligibility and supervised elections, changed the rules. Previously, candidates had to demonstrate ijtihad, the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. In 1998 all potential candidates were also required to demonstrate a proper political inclination.

On 23 February 1999 the third Assembly of Experts, which was elected in October 1998, held its inaugural meeting in the holy city of Qom. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was unable to attend, so his message to the assembly was read by his office chief, Hojatoleslam Mohammadi Golpaygani. The message praised the conduct of the October election, and it criticized efforts "to deprive the assembly of a strong public backing by launching poisonous propaganda and raising doubts regarding its procedures." The permanent presidium was elected during the session. Its members were Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi as speaker, the ubiquitous Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as first deputy speaker, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini as second deputy speaker, and Hojatoleslams Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi (who had recently retired as Intelligence Minister) and Hassan Taheri-Khorramabadi were chosen as secretaries.

The 12-14 February 2001 meeting of the third Assembly of Experts saw the re-emergence of controversy about the clerical body's often obscure activities. In the 16 February 2001 Friday prayers sermon, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that because some of the discussions touched on national security issues, it was not expedient to describe them publicly. The Assembly's official post-meeting statement, which appeared in the 17 February 2001 "Resalat," discussed many subjects other than the Leadership. It said that the main objective of the "Great Satan" (the US) was to harm Iran by "creating divisions within the nation, crisis mongering, bringing about discord between the revolutionary forces, and disheartening and weakening the people."

When the Assembly of Experts held its sixth session during the first week of September 2001, the official reports indicated that the members discussed many of the same things they talked about in May 2002. The final statement was issued on 5 September 2002, and it described the importance of vilayat-i faqih and the country's theocratic system. The supervisory function was very important, but assembly members had differing views about it and the majority of members had voted against extending supervision.

The next election for the Assembly of Experts was scheduled for October 2006. Intense debates by international observers surrounded the elections. Whether new elections to the Assembly of Experts would have an serious effect on Iranian politics appeared to be mainly centered in factional infighting among members of the existing establishment. The Council of Guardians succeeded in eliminating numerous potential opposition candidates, preventing the candidacy of over 300 individuals, including all women, leaving some districts with only one candidate. In the end the elections proved more than relevant to Iran's political scene as moderates, endorsed by reformists in Iran's political establishment, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, secured a major victory. These results were seen as a major blow to ultra-convservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected the chairman of the Assembly of Experts during its morning session on 04 September 2007 [Shahrivar 13, 1386]. Rafsanjani's election is significant because prior to the meeting of the Assembly of Experts, the conservative supporters of the president tried to advance their own candidates Mohammad Taghi, Mesbah Yazdi, and Ahmad Jannati for the head of the assembly with deliberate and sometimes hidden attacks on Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite these attempts and the positioning of Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the guardian council, as a rival candidate to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the conservatives failed to achieve their goal.

The election of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is the only governmental body above the supreme leader according to the constitution, added to his existing responsibility as the head the Expediency Discernment Council of the System. From a strictly legal or constitutional point of view, the appointment of one person as the head of the Assembly of Experts while simultaneously heading the Expediency Council did not raise any constitutional issues. But the issue did raise questions from the political and general point of view. This is because the Expediency Council is the consultative arm of the supreme leader while the Assembly of Experts, according to the constitution, has supervision over the supreme leader. So if one person is an advisor to the supreme leader while heading an assembly whose prime responsibility is supervising the politics that the leader employs, then there is a logical problem because these two responsibilities are placed under one person. In a way, Mr. Rafsanjani will need to supervise decisions in which he was personally involved.




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