Iran’s much anticipated “moderation” made international headlines in the aftermath of February’s post-nuclear deal elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The New York Times declared the “Iranian President and Moderates Make Strong Gains in Elections.” The Wall Street Journal proclaimed “Moderates Win Key Iran Election Races.” And the Financial Times announced “Blow for Iran’s hardliners as moderates win key seats.” In Tehran, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lamented the defeat of hardliners Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, branding them as a “loss” for the nation.
But in the end, the mullahcracy delivered a warning shot with the election on Tuesday of arch-conservative and regime insider Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Jannati received 55 votes out of a total of 88 in the chamber, even though he barely held on to his seat in public voting for membership to the Assembly. The moderate former President of Iran, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who won reelection by large margin and with a clear mandate didn’t even run for the top job. Jannati beat out Ebrahim Amini, a cleric who appeared on both the Principlist and Rafsanjani slates of candidates in February, and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iran’s judiciary, a traditional conservative and a potential successor to the Supreme Leader. So what happened to the reformers running the table in February, delivering hope and change? The answer lies in the fact that conservatives still have a tight grip on the levers of real power in the deep state of the Islamic Republic.
The Assembly of Experts holds formidable power in theory, but has exercised little power in practice. Nevertheless, this sanctum sanctorum is constitutionally tasked with selecting Iran’s next supreme leader and supervising his performance to determine if he is able to fulfill his role. With rumors about the Supreme Leader’s health, and the historic staying power and prestige of past chairmen (Ali Akbar Feyz Meshkini served at the helm for 24 years and was rumored to be on the short list for a slot on a substitute leadership council in the aftermath of Khomeini’s death), there is a chance that the new chairman, even at 89 years of age, could preside over the elevation process or at the very least ensure conservative control of the chamber for the duration of this Assembly’s term.
All these factors demonstrate that the mullahs wanted a steady, trusted hand to steer the Assembly during an expected time of transition. Ayatollah Jannati has dominated Tehran’s political scene since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He has served with the blessing of the Supreme Leader as a member of the Guardian Council—the body tasked with vetting candidates for state elections and legislation—since 1980, and has led the Council since 1996. According to a study by the Rand Institute, in the past, Jannati “has voiced support for suicide bombings as a means of resistance, called for Iran to scrap its nuclear-treaty commitments, and championed efforts to export the revolution.” He has called support for Hezbollah a “duty” and advocated for the assassination of then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni back in 2009. Jannati also is essentially the political godfather of the more militant Iranian judiciary and intelligence services, given his leadership of the Haqqani religious school, whose graduates, according to Rand, are heavily represented among their ranks.
This ominous development suggests that where it counts the most, the nature of the Iranian regime remains unchanged in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. In fact, regime stalwarts are doubling down, racing to protect Tehran’s unelected organs—the real power behind the throne of state.
Jason Brodsky is the Policy Director of United Against Nuclear Iran. The views expressed here are the author’s own.