Khomeini Is Back!

Weeks before a critical election, Iran’s Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, throws his hat in the ring.

Hassan Khomeini, grandson of noted poetry enthusiast and founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has announced he’ll be running for his country’s Assembly of Experts. His announcement further raises the stakes of the country’s February 2016 legislative elections, which already have the potential to be a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. Yet there’s a tough, uncertain road ahead.

The younger Khomeini has extensive ties to the Islamic Republic’s reformist faction, which has been squeezed out of the political system in recent years. The Khomeini name and the elite connections that come with it lend him a measure of protection that other members of this faction don’t enjoy; it will be more difficult for hardliners to block his candidacy. And who gets blocked will likely be as important in shaping the election’s outcome as who gets the most votes. If centrists and reformists are allowed to run and allowed to win, odds are good that they’ll make big gains in both the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Majles, Iran’s parliament). The latter could become a vital center of political strength for the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who has been facing stronger political headwinds ever since the finalization of the nuclear deal. The former, the Assembly of Experts, oversees the Supreme Leader and, in the event of his death or resignation, chooses his successor. Since the Assembly of Experts is only elected every eight years and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is already seventy-six and prone to health scares, next February’s victors may very well set Iran’s course for decades.

Yet the outcome of the vote and of the younger Khomeini’s campaign is far from certain. The Guardian Council weighs candidates’ qualifications, and its use of this power has often been thoroughly politicized. They only approved eight candidates for the 2013 presidential elections, blocking both a former president, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the then president’s closest adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. No reformists were allowed through, fitting a broader pattern of hardline interference with their political activities since the disputed 2009 presidential elections. The current government appears concerned that potentially friendly candidates will be blocked in the upcoming elections, too, with President Rouhani repeatedly calling for a more restrained Guardian Council. The sharp replies that his remarks drew from prominent hardline figures and the Supreme Leader himself suggest that Rouhani may not get his wish. It’s quite possible that Khomeini himself will be obstructed, too. Multiple Khomeini grandchildren have tried to run for the Majles in the past and were disqualified; Hassan Khomeini, at just 43 years of age, would be relatively youthful and inexperienced among the graybeards of the Assembly of Experts. Still, given that Khamenei himself became Supreme Leader with limited religious qualifications, the Guardian Council’s decision regarding Hassan Khomeini should be read as a matter of power, not of principle.