May 25, 2016 | Policy Brief

A Hardliner’s Hardliner Wins Assembly of Experts Chair

May 25, 2016 | Policy Brief

A Hardliner’s Hardliner Wins Assembly of Experts Chair

The Assembly of Experts, the body charged with choosing Iran’s supreme leader, selected one of the Islamic Republic’s most hardline, anti-Western clerics as chairman on Tuesday. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, 89, has a reputation for blistering denunciations of America, of Iranian reformists, and of any attempts to deviate from the founding principles of the Islamic revolution. His victory undermines the unsupported assessment that “moderate” clerics had won this year’s election to the Assembly, and might one day choose a similarly moderate supreme leader to replace the aging Ali Khamenei.

In addition to his new post chairing the Assembly, Jannati has since 1992 headed the Guardian Council – which vets all Assembly, parliamentary, and presidential candidates, and also oversees elections. Under his leadership, the Council supervised and approved the fraudulent 2009 ballot that brought the firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. On other occasions, he has warned there can be “no room for mercy” for regime opponents at home, and declared, “We are an anti-American regime. America is our enemy, and we are the enemies of America.”

The octogenarian won a resounding 59 percent of Tuesday’s internal vote. How did a supposedly moderate Assembly select such a radical hardliner?

The notion of a more moderate Assembly is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of Iran’s political process. Weeks before the popular elections to the Assembly in February, the Guardian Council had preemptively disqualified some 80 percent of the contenders. The bulk of the disqualified candidates represented comparatively pragmatic elements of the ruling elite, while most of the approved contenders were radical revolutionaries. As a result, the few supposed “moderates” who were approved were forced to round off their party lists with more radical candidates.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the cleric selected to be Jannati’s deputy chairman (and first in line to replace him) is also a hardliner’s hardliner. The 85-year-old Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani was formerly Khamenei’s representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and himself has impeccable anti-Western credentials. A week after last year’s nuclear deal, he delivered a Friday sermon behind a podium bearing the words, “We will trample upon America.”

The chairman’s second deputy, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, is also a radical, having served from 1999 to 2009 as head of the judiciary. Under his leadership, the judiciary has prosecuted reformist members of parliament, cracked down on media freedoms, and issued arrest warrants for hundreds of activists – many of whom would ultimately suffer torture or imprisonment. Indeed, Shahroudi’s hardline bona fides are so beyond reproach that he is frequently mentioned as one of the likeliest candidates to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.

Once the time comes to choose Khamenei’s successor, multiple outside power centers will seek to exert their influence on the Assembly’s decision. Unelected institutions like the judiciary, intelligence services, and the IRGC will attempt to sway that process to ensure the selection of a “hard-hardliner.” With the Assembly dominated by like-minded radicals, their work will be relatively easy.

Ultimately, with the Assembly that chooses the next supreme leader determined to stay Iran’s revolutionary course, it is all but guaranteed that Khamenei’s successor will be a hardliner’s hardliner like himself.

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj.