The Revolution Devours its Grandchildren: Responses to the Disqualification of Hassan Khomeini as a Candidate for the Assembly of Experts

Raz Zimmt analyzes the disqualification of Hassan Khomeni from running for the Iranian Assembly of Experts, and how it was reflected on Iranian social media.

In late January, the Iranian Guardian Council published the names of candidates it had approved to stand for election to the Assembly of Experts on February 26. According to the Iranian Constitution, the Assembly of Experts is responsible for monitoring the activity of the Supreme Leader, appointing a successor or even removing him if it finds that he is no longer fit to carry out his duties. The elections, which are held once every eight years, were the subject of special interest this year, because it is likely that the council elected now will indeed choose the next supreme leader, as the health of incumbent Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is failing.The list of potential candidates who were not approved included Hassan Khomeini, a young grandson of the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This decision led to extensive discussions on social networking sites (SNS). The 44-year-old Khomeini is considered the most prominent of the 15 grandchildren of the Islamic revolution’s leader. In the 1990s, he began religious training with senior clerics in Qom, and after his father's death managed the mausoleum in the elder Khomeini’s memory, and took responsibility for preserving his heritage. For years, Hassan Khomeini avoided political involvement but in recent years he has commented on sensitive political matters more frequently. He is currently affiliated with the moderate reformist movement in Iranian politics.

On December 18, 2015, Khomeini filed his candidacy for election to the Assembly of Experts. He was marked one of the most conspicuous candidates from the camp supporting President Hassan Rouhani, thanks to his family connections, religious talents, his relative youth (which is attractive for many young voters) and comparatively moderate positions. Therefore, rejection of his candidacy aroused strong reactions within the Iranian political system and among the public. The Council justified its rejection by noting that Khomeini did not appear to take the competency exam on religious law that was given as part of the process for vetting candidates. This argument was rejected by his supporters, who attributed  the disqualification to his moderate political positions and close relationship with President Rouhani, and Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also affiliated with the moderate wing of Iranian politics. On January 29, Khomeini issued a response expressing his amazement at the decision of the Guardian Council which, he contended, was made despite testimony by senior clerics about his legal competency. He announced his intention to appeal the decision, at the request of the public, but expressed doubt about any chance that the Council would change its mind. In the end, the decision remained in place.[1]

Responses to the disqualification of Khomeini on SNS expressed public support for the young cleric, dissatisfaction with the decision of the Guardian Council, and criticism for the regime that prevents candidates with political concepts and ideas differing from its own from standing for election.[2] The initial publication of reports that Khomeini was barred from running filled SNS and reformist-affiliated news sites with expressions of support for him. Many internet users claimed that the Council’s decision was evidence that the revolution “devours its children.” One user said that after the revolution had finished consuming all its sons, it continued by devouring its grandchildren. Another wrote that if the leader of the revolution himself were alive, he would have been disqualified by the Guardian Council. “Thirty years ago, if some had said that thirty years in the future, the candidacy of the founder of the revolution’s own grandson would be blocked, people would have called him a derogatory nickname,”[3] tweeted one Iranian user. Others claimed that there was no reason to be surprised by the decision of the Council, because it is well-known that the Iranian regime seeks to strengthen the exclusive position of its conservative supporters, and allows competition only between different sectors of the regime. Moreover, some members of the Guardian Council also serve in the Assembly of Experts and therefore have an interest in preserving their political power there.

Users were divided about Khomeini’s decision not to take the proficiency test in religious law. While some believed he should have taken it because he is not exempt from obeying the law, others expressed the view that the exam was designed only to serve as an excuse for the Council to disqualify his candidacy, and that Khomeini would have been rejected regardless, because of his moderate positions and the public sympathy that he enjoys. Controversy also arose regarding how Khomeini ought to respond. While there were those who felt he should appeal the decision, others recommended that he not appeal, so as not to give legitimacy to the Council and its decisions.

Against the backdrop of massive public interest provoked by Khomeini’s disqualification, there were some voices which called for minimizing the event’s importance. In a post on his Facebook page, exiled Iranian human rights activist Ali Afshar came out against what he called “exaggerated reactions” to the disqualification. For example, it was defined as “the worst political event since the revolution.” Afshar claimed that, even if the Council had approved Khomeini’s candidacy, he would not have been able to bring about significant change in the political system. Moreover, he argued that the disqualified candidates included some who surpass Khomeini in their political or religious standing.[4]

Responses to the disqualification of Khomeini’s candidacy reflect continuing public dissatisfaction with the conservative government’s efforts to exclude anyone who challenges their exclusivity in the political system. However, the opposition to the idea of boycotting the elections following the disqualification, and the lively discussion about the disqualification on SNS, could indicate that Iranians still consider the political game important. It seems that despite the severe restrictions that the Iranian regime imposed on candidates, the public continues to show interest, and is ready to take an active role in the elections process. The trend to avoid boycotting the elections was also evident in the recent elections for the Majles (2012) and presidency (2013), when the opposition calls from the Iranian diaspora to boycott the elections were not well received by either the public or parties affiliated with the reformist opposition.