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Many Iran experts expected that upon President Hassan Rouhani’s accomplishment of securing the nuclear deal, he would turn his attention to domestic issues. No one guessed, however, that he would do so by jumping into a minefield by challenging the Guardian Council, one of the most powerful pillars of the conservative camp in Iran.

The Guardian Council is composed of 12 members: Six Islamic clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself and another six jurists elected by the Majlis (parliament) from candidates nominated by the chief of the judiciary (who is, in turn, nominated by the Supreme Leader). The Guardian Council’s power resides in its legislative and electoral authority. It must approve all the bills passed by the Majlis, has the power to veto bills, interprets the constitution and vets all candidates for president, parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

The Guardian Council has long been accused of politically-motivated candidate vetting. Over the years, the Council has disqualified numerous reformist and moderate candidates in an effort to maintain the balance of power in favour of the hardliners. They seem to be determined to eradicate the moderate and reformist candidates in the upcoming elections by labelling them as “seditionists”, a term used for those who protested former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election in 2009.

The Council refuses such accusations and highlights the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and the moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013 as evidence that the accusations are baseless. However, in one of their glaringly biased moves, the Council banned the former heavy-weight moderate candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running for president in 2013.

In an August 19 speech aimed at curbing the ability of the Guardian Council to disqualify the candidates of the moderate and reformist camps, Rouhani declared that competitive elections must be open to all factions. His remarks have been viewed as a prelude to the highly sensitive February 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections and the battleground between the moderates and conservatives. The Assembly of Experts is the body of 86 jurists tasked with selecting the next Supreme Leader in the event Ayatollah Khamenei passes away.

“The nuclear victory does not mean that we should not seek victories in other areas. The nuclear victory is the beginning of successive and comprehensive victories,” Rouhani said in the speech. “The future Islamic parliament will not belong to one party or one front,” he added.

“This is the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Constitution governs here. ... We have no place in the country that wants to disqualify qualified and caring individuals who want to serve the country using their experiences, regardless of the faction from which they may come. ... All are equal from the perspective of the administration and where it must be said, whether or not an individual is qualified to participate in an election, there are executive councils. (emphasis added).”

Executive Councils are shaped prior to any election in all cities and work under the Ministry of Interior. They approve a candidate once they receive clearance from four sources — the Ministry of Intelligence, the police, the office of the registrar, and the judiciary — regardless of the candidate’s political tendencies.

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Jafari, wasted no time in attacking Rouhani. Without making a direct reference to Rouhani, he said: “This kind of language that would weaken one of the pillars of the Islamic Revolution, as in the Guardian Council, damages national unity.” He added, “Those who want to open a new window through these speeches for foreigners’ penetration in the country, contradicting the principles of the revolution and the speeches of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, must know we shall never permit the development and implementation of this way of thinking.”

In perhaps the harshest words addressed to Rouhani to date, Jafari recommended, without naming Rouhani, that the officials not “call into question the beliefs and values of the revolution just to appease the dominant powers and the Great Satan.”

Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the current head of the judiciary and one of the speculated candidates to succeed Khamenei, called “some statements about the elections and monitoring them and [the process of] vetting the qualification of the candidates” as “suitable for commoners” and “cause of surprise”.

On September 1, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the head of the Assembly of Experts, said in the last session before the election of February 2016, “the Guardian Council will supervise on the best manner of implementation of the elections, and definitely the Council should exercise its inherent function, and it would not abandon it for winning some circles’ hearts”.

Will Rouhani win this battle?

The short answer: Very unlikely. The long answer is that Rouhani’s emphasis in pushing his new agenda rests with the law, primarily the constitution. This is exactly where he becomes vulnerable.

According to Article 99 of the Constitution: “The Guardian Council has the responsibility of supervising the elections of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, the President of the Republic, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda.”

But who is going to determine and explain what supervision means and what it includes? According to Article 98: “The authority of the interpretation of the Constitution is vested with the Guardian Council, which is to be done with the consent of three-fourths of its members.”

In 1991, the Guardian Council presented its interpretation as follows: “The supervision mentioned in article 99 is an approbative one and it includes all the stages of the elections including acceptance or rejection of the candidates.”

Furthermore, in 1995, Iran’s parliament passed a law which confirmed the interpretation of the Guardian Council.

And finally, during his September 9 speech, Iran’s leader himself brought up the issue. “The Guardian Council is the eye of the nezam during the elections. ... The Guardian Council’s supervision over the elections is approbative and effective,” he remarked.

It is clear that Rouhani miscalculated. He thought that he could build on Ayatollah Khamenei’s support of him and his team over the nuclear negotiations, despite heavy attacks by the hardliners.

The reality, however, is that the two issues are of a different nature. Iran’s leader supported the negotiations because sanctions were threatening the survival of the system. But when it comes to domestic issues, one can hardly find an example where in a dispute between the two camps, especially at this level of significance, Khamenei has sided with the moderates and reformists.

It must be taken into consideration that the outcome of the elections of the Assembly of Experts — whether the moderates or the conservatives will gain the majority — may determine the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic. It was and is readily apparent that Khamenei will not allow the unelected body’s authority to approve or reject the candidates to be stripped.

While the outcome of Rouhani’s domestic strategy is not yet certain, one thing is — as Iran nears the February elections, Rouhani will intensify these manoeuvrings. His calculus is clear: Put the conservatives on the defensive and make them think twice before they disqualify moderate candidates.

After all, no one within the establishment wants a repeat of the massive and threatening street protests against the outcome of the 2009 presidential elections.

Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada. You can follow him on www.twitter.com/SShahidSaless