October 23, 2014 | Policy Brief

The Passing of Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani

What it means for the Islamic Republic

Another man of the cloth has perished. Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, the Chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, passed away this Tuesday while hospitalized with a coma in Tehran. On the surface, it may just seem like another elderly cleric in the Islamic Republic has met his maker. But the death of the head of Iran’s most influential clerical body re-invigorates a volatile debate around succession and the transfer of power in the Islamic Republic.

To commemorate him, President Hassan Rouhani declared “two days of public mourning” for the “great revolutionary cleric.” Mahdavi-Kani deserves his revolutionary commendation, as he served in a host of positions ranging from interim Prime Minister to the President of Imam Sadegh University. He also sat on a host of councils like the Guardian Council and the Expediency Discernment Council.

Rouhani was not the only one to sing his praises. A host of prominent officials and institutions from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Speaker of Parliament [Majlis] and even the National Army [Artesh] and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) put out statements about the Assembly leader’s death.

The Assembly, whose structure and functions were formalized in 1983, is required to, at least in theory, review the activities of the sitting Supreme Leader and – more importantly – pick the next the one. Composed of 86 clerics, its mission is explicitly political. In 2011, former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had clashed with Khamenei over the fraudulent presidential elections in 2009, was sidelined from the position in favor of Mahdavi-Kani. Mahdavi-Kani acceded to the Chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts with 63 votes. Oddly enough, many years ago, it was Rafsanjani who steered the Assembly towards making Khamenei the next Supreme Leader and would later vouch for him.

Currently without an official Chairman, the Assembly is de-facto led by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, its Deputy-Chairman. Some suggest Shahroudi, a traditional-conservative, would be the natural next choice. There is also the slim possibility that the Assembly will continue without a Chairman until its next election in 2015. But given the Assembly’s power to select a Supreme Leader, and given Khamenei’s age (75) and recent prostate surgery, that would be a risky proposition.

Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani is now buried near the grounds of the Shah-Abdol Azim Shrine in the city of Rey after Khamenei led memorial prayers in Tehran. The death of Mahdavi-Kani should remind Iran watchers that even with Rouhani’s technocrats and the numerous veterans of the IRGC in politics, the Islamic Republic retains a host of government bodies reserved for clerics alone. Despite their seemingly waning power and old age, these clerics remain central to the current structure of the Islamic Republic.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies