PHOTO: Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani with President Rouhani
Iran’s hardliners won a significant victory on Tuesday, preventing former President Hashemi Rafsanjani from becoming head of the Assembly of Experts.
In a sudden turn in developments, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi — a member of the Guardian Council and former head of judiciary and Vice President of the Assembly — claimed the chair with 47 votes. Rafsanjani trailed with 24.
The vote was triggered by the death of the previous head, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, in October 2014 after a heart attack and lengthy coma.
A Rafsanjani victory would have been a political triumph for the Rouhani Government against the ongoing challenge from hardliners. The President’s opponents have blocked social and cultural “reform”, prevented any move to free political prisoners including opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, accused Government allies of “sedition”, and even threatened the nuclear negotiations with the US and other powers.
Beyond this immediate battle, Rafsanjani was proposing a fundamental change in the rule of the Islamic Republic. He suggested that the position of the Supreme Leader would be replaced by a council once the current Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, died.
The Assembly of Experts chooses the Supreme Leader and nominally has the power to remove him.
In the weeks before the ballot, hardliners appeared to be struggling to check Rafsanjani’s attempt to reclaim the post, which he held from 2007 to 2011. On the eve of the vote, they seemed to accept a compromise in which Ayatollah Mohammad Hashemi Shahroudi, a former head of judiciary who is close to the Supreme Leader as well as Rafsanjani.
However, just before the first round of voting yesterday, Shahroudi withdrew from the ballot, leaving the path clear for Yazdi to challenge Rafsanjani.
In the first vote, Yazdi led with 35 votes to Rafsanjani’s 25, with conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Momen taking 13. On the second ballot, Momen’s supporters switched to Yazdi, leaving the former President to consider the impact of the defeat.
So how did the hardliners turn around the situation? It seems that they were mobilized — and assisted — by Rafsanjani’s proposal, repeated in an interview last month, for the Council to replace the Supreme Leader.
Yazdi has long fought bitterly with Rafsanjani over the relationship to Ayatollah Khamenei. Soon after the disputed 2009 Presidential election, in which Rafsanjani supported the right to protest,, Yazdi accused the former President of distancing himself from Khamenei and not showing him appropriate respect: “[This is] a kind of brazen insult to the Supreme Leader.”
Rafsanjani hit back, “Unfortunately, [Yazdi] has physical problems that sometimes make him angry and he speaks in haste.”
In the past week, Yazdi renewed the questioning of Rafsanjani’s loyalty to the Supreme Leader. That response may have prompted hardliners to see an opportunity, rejecting the Shahroudi compromise and uniting behind his campaign.
Yazdi’s victory consolidates a hardline political bloc with his close ties to Guardian Council chairman Ahmad Jannati. The new Assembly head is also President of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom.
It also portends even more criticism of the Rouhani Government. The new Assembly head has been vocal in his denunciation of Rouhani’s initiatives for “openness”. In February, he challenged the Culture Minister, Ali Jannati, over women singing in public — “In Islam, music is forbidden. And a female soloist is definitely forbidden” — and warned him not to deviate from the path of righteousness.
Yazdi’s term, to complete the term of his deceased predecessor, is only for one year. That means another Assembly ballot at almost the same time as the next Parliamentary elections.
Reformists as well as Rouhani’s camp had hoped that a Rafsanjani victory on Tuesday would have been a marker for their fightback in the Majlis. Now there may have to be a reassessment of the response to the hardline challenge — particularly if the Government does not get support from a nuclear agreement with the US and the other 5+1 Powers and from the subsequent boost to the Iranian economy.