Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a 89-year-old staunchly traditionalist cleric, has been elected to the chair of the Assembly of Experts (AoE), securing 51 votes of this oversight body whose sole role is to oversee the office of the supreme leader, currently under the helm of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The AoE is voted in every two years.
The grouping of mostly octogenarian clerics and former government officials and other non-religious figure heads is expected in this term to begin procedures to pick the next supreme leader, considering Ayatollah Khamenei’s poor health, according to sources. As its name suggests, the post of supreme leader is of crucial importance: Khamenei has held the position for over 20 years and been at the forefront of every major government policy in that time. Nothing of note in the country has happened without his approval.
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi also ran for the chairman’s post, garnering 21 and 13 votes respectively, according to Kayhan newspaper.
In addition, Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Movahedi Kermani, a Friday prayer leader of Tehran, was elected as the first deputy chief of the assembly and Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi as his second in command.
Jannati’s other roles
Jannati also chairs another top government institution, namely the Guardian Council, tasked with vetting candidates for all of Iran's elections.
This 12-member Guardian Council, which comprises half clerics and half jurists, disqualified an overwhelming number of prominent reformist candidates and some moderates from standing in the February nationwide elections for the AoE and parliament (Majlis).
The Guardian Council caused consternation when several high-ranking candidates were banned from running in several areas, including Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson – the founder of the current Iranian political system – Hassan Khomeini, who was barred from entering the AoE race.
Many others were banned from running in different electoral races due to their perceived non-Islamic backgrounds, a key decider under the current system. Other candidates were even rejected after they had won enough votes, including one woman in parliament who was pictured outside of Iran without the obligatory Islamic headscarf.
Conservatives don’t have it all
When votes were cast for the AoE itself, several hard-line Conservative candidates were blown out of the water as concerted campaigns online through social media apps like Telegram Messenger caused mass-voting against traditionalist groups.
The vote for the AoE saw a liberal capitalist Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani top the list of the 16 runners representing the capital Tehran in the assembly, with one of his key allies, moderate President Hassan Rouhani, coming in third place.
Jannati, who came last in the AoE vote for Tehran was in 16th place of available seats in Tehran, and ended up the only elected conservative candidate from the capital's constituency.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also sent a message to the elected members of the AoE, stressing that their role is hugely important in the wider Islamic Republic structure. In his message he said: "Their responsibility is to safeguard the Islamic and revolutionary identity of the ruling system."
Jannati’s positioning at the helm of this important body indicates how the current leader isn’t going to allow reformists and independents to take over all segments of the current apparatus.
It also shows how, as some analysts have noted, that Jannati’s election as head of the AoE is to placate the hard-line factions and ease their nervousness over current events in the country, notably the nuclear deal with the West that has enabled the partial lifting of sanctions.
External actors angry
In response to Jannati’s election as chair of the AoE, several civil rights and anti-Islamic Republic groups inside and outside of Iran have begun online campaigns on Twitter and other social media platforms to remove the elderly cleric from his new position.
These groups, using the hashtag #ReferendumforIran and #NotoJannati, have also been hijacked by banned groups such as the Mujehadden el-Khalk (MeK), an outlawed “Islamist Marxist” group which was until 2004 based in Iraq under the protection of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran’s Assembly of Experts building was, prior to the construction of the new Iranian parliament building, the initial home of the revolutionary parliament, and prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution it was the home of the Iranian Senate under the regime of the Shah of Iran, who fled the country on the outbreak of the revolution against his rule.