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What Is Iran's Assembly of Experts?

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Iran's 86-member Assembly of Experts, popularly elected to eight-year terms, chooses the Supreme Leader and monitors his performance.

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Question: What Is Iran's Assembly of Experts?
Answer: The Assembly of Experts, one of three institutions whose members are directly elected by popular vote (the parliament and the presidency are the others), is part of Iran's complex constitutional structure of theocratic, democratic and authoritarian governance.

The Assembly of Experts is comparable to the Vatican's College of Cardinals. It is made up of 86 clerics whose chief responsibilities are the election of a Supreme Leader and the monitoring of his performance.

The assembly isn't open to anyone who wants to run. Candidates, including those running for re-election to the assembly, must pass a written exam and an oral interview. The 86 members are elected from 36 constituencies across Iran. Tehran gets the most candidates (16). Khuzestan and Khorastan Razavi get six each, Fars and Isfahan and Eastern Azarbayjan 5 each, and the remaining provinces anywhere between one and four representatives.

While the Iranian constitution appears to grant the Assembly of Experts a democratic and supervisory role, the constitution also grants the Guardian Council the power to regulate how the experts are made eligible for election (such as drawing up their exams and conducting their interviews). The Guardian Council itself is appointed by the Supreme Leader and serves at his pleasure. And the Supreme Leader reserves the power to ratify, or reject, an expert's election. The contradiction is a clear conflict of interest that the constitution leaves unresolved, undermining the claim that the Assembly of Experts is either independent or non-political. The assembly is, essentially, a tool of the Supreme Leader disguised as an elected, democratic institution.

Women are eligible to run for the Assembly of Experts, as they are for any elected office in the Islamic Republic. But they must also meet the qualifications for the office, such as having acquired the authority to interpret religious law or achieved the highest degree of Islamic teaching. Few women in Iran have those qualifications. In 1998, nine women submitted their candidacy to the Assembly of Experts. The Guardian Council rejected them all.

The 2006 Vote

The 2006 vote for the Assembly of Experts, in December that year, was telling: The Guardian Council disqualified from running most of the candidates aligning themselves with hardliner Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, won a seat with 823,602 votes, but most of his allies did not, and the slightly more moderate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and rival to Ahmadinejad, won almost double that number of votes.

Some 65 candidates who won election to the assembly are close to Rafsanjani, making him the front-runner for Supreme Leader, if and when Ali Khamenei, who was 70 ion 2009, ever dies.

The next election for the Assembly of Experts is scheduled for December 2014.

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