This article is the fourth in an ongoing series exploring the question of succession in the Islamic Republic and the eventual move to a post-Khamenei era.

The results of the March 1 election for Iran’s Assembly of Experts hold great importance for understanding how the regime is preparing for the selection of the next supreme leader. The major responsibility of this 88-member body is to designate Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor, either after his death or if he becomes incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities.

The March 1 election marked the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. It is worth noting that since 2016, the Iranian government has held elections for the Assembly of Experts and the parliament simultaneously, seemingly in an effort to encourage Iranians to vote in both with the aim of increasing overall turnout. This is particularly important because the turnout for Assembly of Experts elections, excluding the first one in 1982, has generally been lower than that of other Iranian elections, including parliamentary ones. For instance, in the 2016 election, the Assembly of Experts vote witnessed turnout of approximately 61%, while that for parliament reached almost 62%.

The Ministry of Interior, responsible for conducting elections in Iran, has not yet disclosed the turnout for the March Assembly of Experts election, although it has reported a 41% participation rate in the simultaneous parliamentary vote. Nevertheless, many Iranian journalists and analysts have expressed skepticism at this figure, believing that the actual turnout is considerably lower. Moreover, there is also substantial evidence of electoral fraud, such as the improper use of certain citizens' national identity numbers to cast votes on their behalf. Even with all of this, the participation rate reported by the Ministry of Interior is still lower than in any previous parliamentary election in the Islamic Republic.

To better understand how much participation in the Assembly of Experts election has fallen, the official figures for Tehran province can provide a useful guide. These results are quite telling: Alireza A’rafi, the top vote-getter in Tehran, which has 16 representatives in the assembly, secured about 889,000 votes. By comparison, the top vote-getter in the last election, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, received over 2.3 million votes — and that was eight years ago, when there were fewer eligible voters. In the 2016 election, even the candidate who placed last among the 16 Tehran representatives, Ahmad Jannati, garnered over 1.3 million votes.

This is despite the fact that only 26 candidates qualified to run in Tehran this time around, which is even fewer than the 33 individuals who qualified in 2016. Clearly then the substantial decrease in the top candidate’s votes was not due to greater competition but rather was a result of lower turnout. Furthermore, part of the sharp drop is also due to many voters not voting for anyone at all and instead submitting blank or invalid ballots.

The recent election took place in a context where even some of the staunchest advocates of participating in elections at any cost, including the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, refrained from voting. Following the 2009 protests, Khatami faced severe criticism from government opponents, critics, and even many of his own allies for steadfastly advocating voting in all elections, even in the aftermath of the regime's bloodiest crackdown.

Eliminating famous faces

In the March 1 Assembly of Experts election, 510 individuals initially registered as candidates, of which the Guardian Council disqualified 366, leaving only 144 to compete for the assembly’s 88 seats. According to the constitution, all candidates for the Assembly of Experts must be qualified clerics and must be approved by the jurists of the Guardian Council, all of whom are directly appointed by the supreme leader.

The widespread disqualification of candidates in the recent election provoked extensive criticism from Iranian political activists, especially reformists. For instance, a coalition of reformist groups and activists in Iran published a statement announcing that it would not participate in elections deemed "meaningless and non-competitive." The coalition affirmed that, since none of its candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, it cannot present an electoral list. Furthermore, a group of Iranian clerics who had supported former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani in previous elections declared in a separate statement that they had no candidates to introduce for the Assembly of Experts election.

On average, in the March 1 election there were fewer than two candidates competing for each seat in the assembly, creating a weird situation in many provinces. For instance, in Fars and East Azerbaijan, both of which have five representatives, only six candidates were approved. Similarly, the provinces of Khuzestan and Khorasan Razavi, each with six representatives, had only eight candidates competing in each.

Although born in Khorasan Razavi, President Ebrahim Raisi opted not to run from his home province. Instead, he chose to compete in the much smaller South Khorasan province, known for its extremely conservative social fabric — even more so than provinces like Khorasan Razavi and Qom, where Iran’s holiest Shiite shrines are located. South Khorasan has just one representative in the assembly and the Guardian Council disqualified all four other candidates who had registered. As a result, an unknown cleric named Hassan Rouhbakhsh, who had no intention of running, was encouraged to enter the race to create some form of "competition." This artificial competitor explicitly stated that he had no specific plans for the Assembly of Experts, did not run to "win," and his only purpose was to contribute to the "enthusiastic" conduct of the election.

At the same time, the Guardian Council disqualified a number of well-known clerics, citing various pretexts. Most of those who were disqualified are unquestionably loyal to the Iranian regime, yet the Guardian Council appeared unconvinced about how they might behave in the forthcoming selection of the next supreme leader.

Hassan Rouhani, with eight years of experience as president and about 24 years as a member of the Assembly of Experts, found himself among those disqualified. Mahmoud Alavi, who served as the minister of intelligence under Rouhani from 2013 to 2021 and has been a member of the Assembly of Experts for 24 years, along with Ahmad Montazeri Moghadam, the head of Iran's Supreme Court from 2019 to 2023, were among the other notable clerics barred from competing.

It is worth noting that many famous clerics who were previously disqualified by the Guardian Council, such as Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did not run again this year.

Moreover, after the Assembly of Experts election, it became apparent that some influential candidates who had lost their standing within the supreme leader’s inner circle failed to secure enough votes and lost their seats. Among these individuals, the fate of Sadegh Larijani, the current head of the Expediency Discernment Council, is of particular importance, especially considering that until a few years ago, he was regarded as a prominent candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei. The Expediency Discernment Council is tasked with formulating the macro policies of the Iranian regime, subject to the final approval of the supreme leader.

Sadegh Larijani held the position of head of the judiciary for eight years, served as a member of the Guardian Council for 20 years, and was a member of the Assembly of Experts for 25 years. Nevertheless, after his term on the judiciary concluded in 2019, allies of Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary’s new head, detained some of his close associates on charges of financial corruption, while media outlets and individuals close to the supreme leader expressed unprecedented criticism of him. After the 2021 presidential election, in response to the disqualification of his influential brother, Ali Larijani, former spokesman of the Iranian parliament, Sadegh Larijani resigned from the Guardian Council.

In the recent Assembly of Experts election, Sadegh Larijani ran from Mazandaran province, his birthplace, where five candidates competed for four seats. However, having lost substantial support among government backers in Mazandaran, he ended up fifth among the five candidates, enduring a humiliating defeat.

The least credible Assembly of Experts to date

The minimal participation in the Assembly of Experts election, the low number of votes for candidates who won seats, and the limited presence of prominent figures all communicate a specific message: The sixth Assembly of Experts of the Islamic Republic is weaker than all those that have come before it.

Considering that the term of the new assembly will last for eight years and given that Ayatollah Khamenei is now 84 years old, this Assembly of Experts will likely choose the next supreme leader — and will do so as a body that is notably less credible than its predecessors.

While the sixth assembly and its representatives may lack credibility, in practical terms they may pose fewer potential problems when it comes to selecting Ayatollah Khamenei's successor, an issue where he is undoubtedly not impartial. Moreover, experience has shown that Ayatollah Khamenei's views on strategic issues align with the approach of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose top commanders are directly appointed by him. In such circumstances, the weaker and less ambitious the assembly members are, the easier they will be to control during the designation of the next supreme leader. Essentially, it seems as though Ayatollah Khamenei and his associates’ main expectation of the sixth Assembly of Experts is that it will act as a rubber stamp and officially legitimize decisions that have already been made; the representatives’ only job is to announce those decisions promptly.

The importance of having representatives who obey orders becomes more evident when considering that even the supreme leader’s opinion about his successor could change over time — as was the case with his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It should not be forgotten that Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary from 1999 to 2009, was regarded as a prominent candidate for succeeding Ayatollah Khamenei during much of his judicial term. However, under the next head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, Shahroudi was accused of supporting financially corrupt managers. He eventually yielded in the power struggle against Larijani’s supporters and found himself marginalized in Iran’s political scene. Shahroudi passed away in late 2018 while serving as the head of the Expediency Discernment Council, having not been considered a potential successor to the supreme leader for several years.

Similarly, Sadegh Larijani, who marginalized Shahroudi and was considered a potential candidate for succeeding Ayatollah Khamenei during his judicial career, gradually lost favor in the power struggle against more influential rivals. The decline of Sadegh Larijani coincided with the rise of Ebrahim Raisi, who has been viewed as a probable candidate for succeeding the supreme leader since his appointment as the head of the judiciary in 2019. Serving as Iran’s president since 2021, Raisi remains a potential contender for the top job today. However, given that during Ayatollah Khamenei's rule, all presidents have eventually lost their position in the regime’s inner circle, it is uncertain how long Raisi will remain in the running. This uncertainty also applies to other potential candidates as well, including Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current supreme leader.

In essence, while Ayatollah Khamenei may lean toward a specific individual as his successor now, there is no guarantee that this preference won’t change in the future. Therefore, depending on the timing of his passing, the prospects of various individuals to succeed him may increase or decrease as a result.

All of this suggests that it is insufficient for the sixth Assembly of Experts to adhere to the supreme leader’s current views; this assembly must be flexible enough to unequivocally adhere to his future views too, both about his successor and other key issues.

These traits seem to correspond well with the make-up of the new, "obedient" Assembly of Experts that emerged from the recent election, although it is of course hard to predict how the members of this assembly may behave in the future and how that might shape the fate of the Islamic Republic more broadly.


Marie Abdi is an Iranian political researcher focusing on the Islamic Republic's domestic and regional strategies.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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