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The Surprise Defeat of Rafsanjani

March 10, 2015
Reza HaghighatNejad
5 min read
The Surprise Defeat of Rafsanjani

On Tuesday, March 10, the Assembly of Experts elected hardliner cleric Mohammad Yazdi, 83, as its new chairman.

His election came as a surprise to many. It was predicted that hardliners would do their best to prevent former president Hashemi Rafsanjani from winning the chairmanship, but few could guess that they would appoint one of his most extreme opponents.

Speaking to reformist newspaper Shargh, Rafsanjani said his surprise defeat did not mean he had lost influence. When it came to that “sensitive moment,” he said — referring to the appointment of the Supreme Leader once Ayatollah Khamenei died — he could still have considerable impact as a member. “It is not necessary to be chairman,” he said. “Members can express their views in the assembly. If I want to, I can make a difference.” The appointment of Yazdi will last only one year, with new Assembly elections to take place in 2016.

Before the election, pro-Rafsanjani media had predicted he would win. In his interview with Shargh, he implied that many Assembly members had asked him not to run. He had, however, decided to stay in the race because he was wary of certain individuals — whom he had previously referred to as “unqualified” — to assume the chairmanship. Although he did name names, the stormy relationshp between the former president and the new chairman suggests he was probably referring to Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.

Until the disputed 2009 presidential election, the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and remove the Supreme Leader, was for the most part insulated from political events and developments. But in the aftermath of that election, that changed. In March 2011, Rafsanjani was forced to give up the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, a position he had held since July 2007. The position went to Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani. Although he was a conservative, he was often described as “pragmatic”.

Mahdavi Kani died in October 2014 and the race to replace him was predicted to be very contentious.

Mohammad Yazdi defeated Rafsanjani in the second round of the election, with 47 votes to 24. Prior to the first round there were two other contenders— Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary and the interim chairman, and Ayatollah Mohammad Momen, a moderate conservative.

Shahroudi withdrew from the race before the election got underway, a decision that came as a surprise to many. At that time, he was considered to be the most important contender, and a number of prominent hardliners believed he would have a majority in the assembly. Pro-Rafsanjani media shared that view, and many of them reported that if Shahroudi ran, Rafsanjani would not put himself as a candidate.

Shahroudi, at 66 years old, was the youngest of the candidates. There has been some speculation that he hopes to take on the role of Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Khamenei dies. The fact that he withdrew demonstrates just how complicated and challenging that goal may be.


A Hardliner Victory

The new Assembly chairman is a loyal supporter of Ayatollah Khamenei — and his margin of victory shows just how important this support is.

Yazdi also happens to be a critic of President Rouhani’s administration. In February, he admonished the Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture, Ali Jannati. “In Islam, music is forbidden. And a female soloist is definitely forbidden,” he warned him, urging him not to deviate from the path of righteousness.

Rafsanjani, on the other hand, has been caught up in the hardliner attacks against President Rouhani, with whom he has a close affiliation.

In addition to his appointment as Assembly leader, Mohammad Yazdi is also president of the Teachers Association at Qom seminary, the country’s most influential religious center of learning. His election will bolster the influence of this political and religious body. Politically, he has close ties to Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of the influential Guardian Council, which is tasked with ensuring that laws and elections conform to both Islamic laws and the constitution. In general, the outcome does spell success for hardliners, who will feel confident about both next year’s parliamentary elections and future Assembly of Experts elections.

In the first round of the Assembly vote, Yazdi received 35 votes, Rafsanjani 25 and Momen, 13. In the second round, Momen’s votes went to Mohammad Yazdi. Three votes were declared invalid.

In the past, results were somewhat different. In the 2007 election for Assembly chairmanship, Rafsanjani defeated Mohammad Yazdi 51 votes to 26.

The two have had a stormy relationship, particularly since the 2009 presidential election and its aftermath. Yazdi accused Rafsanjani of moving away from Ayatollah Khamenei, not showing him the appropriate respect, and dismissed the former president’s statements as “a kind of brazen insult to the Supreme Leader.” In turn, Rafsanjani lashed out at Yazdi: “Unfortunately, he has physical problems that sometimes make him angry and he speaks in haste.”

In January 2010, Yazdi said that if Khomeini were to go to hell, he would follow him, but he would not follow Rafsanjani anywhere, not even to paradise.

The battle between the two influential figures continued, with Rafsanjani at times saying that Yazdi’s hostility signaled “a conspiracy” against him — and threatening to take action against him. At the time, other members of the establishment tried to mediate. According to one reliable source, they agreed to the end their public firefight, but, behind the scenes, the animosity continued.


An Uncertain Future

But, when the time comes to select the next Supreme Leader, will hardliners really have the upper hand? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi is guaranteed as chairman for one year only. The outcome of next year's Assembly of Experts election in 2016 is just as unpredictable. Many influential assembly figures — including Mohammad Yazdi himself — are over 80 years old. Many of them may well not be around when the time comes to select the next Supreme Leader.

In early 2010, when Rafsanjani realized that hardliners wanted to replace him with Mahdavi Kani as chairman, he came to the decision to forgo his candidacy so as not to have a defeat on his public record. This time, however, it seems he underestimated hardliners' determination. 

His defeat will give his opponents the chance to speak more critically, and with more volume. But, given his influence, this clamor is unlikely to marginalize him any further. As he has demonstrated in the past, he will continue to hold an important place in Iranian politics, employing an arsenal of well-tested tactics.



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