Dead men's shoes: Gradual change as Iran's founders die

Dead men's shoes: Gradual change as Iran's founders die
Comment: Reform of a strictly hierarchical system will only be likely as Iran's elders die off, writes Majid Mohammadi.
5 min read
23 Sep, 2015
Most of of Iran's Expert Council are at least 70 years old [Anadolu]

In February 2016, alongside parliamentary elections, Iran's rulers expect people to vote for the Expert Council, an 86-member body of government which selects the leader of the Islamic Republic.

This council can also monitor the actions and behaviour of the guardian jurist, something that has never happened. All members of this council are male Shia clerics who are handpicked by the Guardian Council and presented to the public to vote for them.

In some provinces there has been just one candidate for one seat in Expert Council elections.

The council members are selected to serve for eight years. They may also be members of any of the three branches of government. Hasan Rouhani, the president, Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the expediency council, are all members of this body.

The Expert, Guardian and Expediency Councils, whose members also overlap, are the political strongholds of the Shia clerical regime in Iran.

No policy can be made, no bill passed, and no one could get a high-ranking position in executive and legislative branches without the input of these councils. There are no members of Iran's religious or ethnic minorities - Sunni, Christian, Jewish, Bahai, Zoroastrian - member in these councils. Nor are there any women.

     It seems that the political caste of the Islamic Republic is changing, and young clerics and non-clerics are going to replace the old

Therefore, the only inescapable route for change in these councils is through natural transformation, ie: age.

Due to this aging reality, fourteen members of the fourth Expert Council have recently died. More than 25 percent of its members (24 out of 86) are older than 80, and more than 55 percent are more than 70 years old.  

Among the deceased members are Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, former head of revolutionary courts, Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the former speaker of the Expert Council, Ali Mshkini, another former speaker of the Expert Council, and Abolqasem Khazali, a former member of the Guardian Council.

This aging phenomenon is not limited to these councils either. The average age of Rouhani's cabinet is 60 as compared with 45 of Khatami's first term team. The average age of the ninth parliament was about 52, as opposed to 40 in the first Majlis.

There are some bills in the Expert Council to put a cap, such as 75, on the age of candidates. Ostensibly to stop Rafsanjani from standing for a Majlis seat, the eighth Majlis ruled that parliamentary candidates must be under 75 years of age.

It seems that the political caste of the Islamic Republic is changing, and young clerics and non-clerics are going to replace the old.

Khamenei has expressed concern about the future of the Islamic Republic and the increasing influence of the West on Tehran. He reportedly worries about the ideological foundations of the regime after his death: "They [enemies, the West] are waiting for the regime to fall asleep and ten years later, in my absence, reach their goals."

What are the consequences of this generational change that have worried the leader of the Islamic Republic? The arrival of a new generation of clerics and military-security forces to power has three consequences in political structures, political competition, and political ideology of the state:

Losing influence

The most visible change is decrease of integrity and influence of the top of political pyramid.

The new generation of clerics who are occupying the Friday prayer leader positions and membership of political councils are mostly Khamenei's disciples. All high-ranking security and military officers are appointed by the leader and their main qualification is loyalty to him.

They do not have any social base in local religious or political circles and lack any foothold in civil society institutions.

Factional tensions

The second effect is the increase of tensions among political groups and factions. The founding fathers of the Islamic Republic had decades of working together fighting against the Pahlavi regime. They had strong ties that were functioning as an alternative to rational conflict resolutions.

The new generation lacks both. The youngest member of the Expert Council, Hasan Namazi, resigned merely because of a quarrel with another member. Political factions are disclosing corruptions of their rivals on a daily basis.

Loose belief

Khamenei knows well that the new generation's belief in the foundations of his Shia Islamist ideology is not firm. He blames this on Western influence. He has warned several times against the "normalisation" of relations between Iran and the West, and especially since the nuclear deal.

     Young clerics are online most of the time... They do not limit themselves to government media to get information

Other than rhetoric and propaganda, this new generation of clerics and military officers have never had the experience of open conflict between Iran and the West, while their lifestyle is increasingly westernised.

Young clerics are online most of the time. Most have smart phones, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and access to satellite TV channels. They do not limit themselves to government media to get information.  

Islamism in danger

Gerontocracy is one of the main characteristics of Iran's religious theocratic state, in which leadership is concentrated in the hands of religious elders.

The political power within the ruling class used to accumulate with age, making the oldest the holders of the most power. The most critical decisions are reserved for elders in the Expert, Guardian and Expediency Councils.

With the aging and dying out of the elders, this mechanism is likely to change.

It seems that the elders are not confident that the younger generation is as persistent and relentless as the founders in guarding the walls of the Islamist regime and Islamist ideology against secularism, liberalism and feminism.

Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian-born academic and the author of several books in Persian and English on politics, arts and religion in Iran.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.