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Iran’s Septuagenarians

Analysts continue to obsess about next month’s presidential elections in Iran. The latest source of speculation is that the Guardian Council, an unelected body charged with vetting presidential candidates (and disqualifying, in practice, more than 95 percent of them) might give the hook, on account of advanced age, to 78-year-old former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who last week declared his intention to run again for the office. If he were elected, that would mean Rafsanjani would turn 79 within weeks of assuming the presidency and would be nearly 83 by the time his term ended. That the Guardian Council would disqualify on the basis of age is, of course, a bit rich given that Ahmad Jannati, the Council’s chairman, is himself 86.

Ali Khamenei—Iran’s Supreme Leader—is also getting up in age, as he prepares to celebrate his 74th birthday. Influential cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi is now 79; radical former premier turned self-declared reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi is 71; and perennial candidate Mehdi Karroubi is 75. Former Foreign Minister and current candidate Ali Velayati is a relative spry 67. There is a new crop of candidates—former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalali is just a wee lad of 47, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf is just four years Jalali’s senior.

The attention on Rafsanjani’s age should raise larger questions, however, about the looming succession once Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meets his maker. Iran’s supreme leaders have a bad habit of leading a long life but, as Ayatollah Khomeini proved in 1989, they do eventually die. In theory, the 86-member Assembly of Experts chooses the new supreme leader, but precedent suggests they are more of a rubber-stamp body and that Iran’s notables will seek a consensus candidate even before any name is submitted to the Assembly of Experts.

Many of the leading candidates for this spot, however, are getting onward in age, and many of the younger possibilities remain too polarizing. The entrenchment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in politics means that there could likely be no candidate who does not meet first with their approval. Another possibility—and one which harkens back to the first decade of the Islamic Republic—is for the supreme leader’s position to be taken up by a committee rather than an individual. This, in turn, might create more problems than it solves as Iran’s factional disputes might permeate and paralyze its highest institution.

Of course, for the United States, paralysis at the top of the Islamic Republic might not be such a bad thing, nor would it be for the Iranian people if its inherent instability hastens the Islamic Republic’s collapse. Perhaps there is something to be said for Iran’s septuagenarian revolution after all.



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