He has called for death to America and Israel. He has described non-Muslims as “animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.” He has dubbed U.S. troops in Iraq “bloodthirsty wolves” and expressed support for Shiite militias seeking their demise. He has hosted Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as an honored guest. He has demanded the execution of Iranian protestors, urging the judiciary in 2009 to show them no “compassion and leniency.” He has described the latest nationwide demonstrations, which began in late 2017, as a Western plot to subvert Tehran.
And he plays a major role, behind closed doors, in selecting the leadership of Iran’s clerical regime.
Meet Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, 92, who heads two powerful committees responsible for appointing Iran’s supreme leader, vetting candidates for key elected offices, and screening legislation passed by Iran’s parliament — all to ensure fidelity to the regime’s theocratic constitution and Islamist creed. In effect, Jannati constitutes the Islamic Republic’s unelected kingmaker, the power behind the throne who helps preserve the structure and character of the repressive political system.
To express solidarity with the Iranian people and send Tehran a message that its latest provocations in the Persian Gulf will carry a price, the Trump administration should sanction Jannati and his key colleagues.
As chairman of Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council since 1992, Jannati has prevented thousands of Iranians from running for office. Most recently, in the 2017 presidential election, 1,636 candidates, including 137 women, registered to compete; the council permitted only six men, including the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, to vie for the job. In the 2016 parliamentary election, the council nixed 5,894 of the 12,123 applicants.
The 88-member Assembly of Experts, which Jannati has chaired since 2016, possesses even greater power: It retains the ability to appoint, dismiss, and supervise the performance of the supreme leader, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker. In practice, however, the assembly has served as a rubber stamp for the only two men who have occupied the office: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ruled since then. And while a popular vote determines the assembly’s members, who in turn elect its chairman by majority ballot, the Guardian Council once again vets assembly contenders. In 2016, the council rebuffed 640 out of 801 hopefuls.
In this context, the Guardian Council further bolsters the theocracy by vetoing parliamentary bills that would undermine the regime’s power and ideology. In 2018, for example, the council dismissed two bills that would require Iran — pursuant to the demands of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that sets standards for anti-money laundering and combating terror financing — to join UN conventions aimed at fighting terror finance and transnational organized crime.
If the council vetoes a bill, the parliament may then refer the issue to another committee known as the Expediency Council, which adjudicates disputes between the two bodies and serves as an advisory board to the supreme leader. As it happens, though, Khamenei appoints all of the Expediency Council’s 39 members, who include Jannati, the Guardian Council’s five other clerics, and Raisi. Both FATF-related bills remain pending before it.
The regime itself dictates the Guardian Council’s composition: Iran’s supreme leader designates six clerics (such as Jannati), while the head of the judiciary, whom the supreme leader also appoints, nominates six legal experts. Iran’s parliament subsequently votes only on the six legal experts. In early March, Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi — a former presidential candidate infamous for his role in perpetrating Tehran’s 1988 massacre of thousands of political opponents — as judiciary chief. Not coincidentally, only days later, the Assembly of Experts appointed Raisi as its deputy chief. Also not coincidentally, Raisi is a leading candidate to succeed Khamenei.
“If you’re confused, that is the whole point,” wryly notes journalist Roland Elliott Brown, who has written extensively about Iranian politics. “Khamenei chooses the very people who are supposed to supervise him.” This circular configuration essentially renders the government a closed system, precluding the possibility of fundamental change. As Khamenei himself said in 2012 regarding Iran’s elections, “Every vote for any candidate is a vote for the Islamic system.”
Jannati’s leadership positions reflect his ideological kinship with Khamenei. Between 1992 and 2018, Jannati served as the Friday prayer leader in Tehran, a position widely regarded as a stand-in for Khamenei, offering Jannati a regular platform to preach the regime’s creed. Earlier in his career, Jannati served as a judge in the Islamic Republic’s kangaroo court system, imposing draconian sentences — including execution, flogging, and lengthy prison terms — on political dissidents. Jannati rose through the ranks of the regime in part because of these human rights abuses, not in spite of them.
The Trump administration, as part of its maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, has made clear that it remains willing to sanction even the highest-level officials of Iran’s regime. In late June, President TrumpDonald TrumpJury in Jussie Smollett trial begins deliberations Pence says he'll 'evaluate' any requests from Jan. 6 panel Biden's drug overdose strategy pushes treatment for some, prison for others MORE signed Executive Order 13876, which authorizes sanctions against any person appointed to office by Iran’s supreme leader. This measure provides a legal basis for Washington to target members of the shadowy bodies at the heart of the regime.
Accordingly, the United States should sanction Jannati and the five other clerics of the Guardian Council: Mehdi Shabzendedar Jahromi, Mohammad-Reza Modarresi Yazdi, Sadeq Larijani, Mohammad Yazdi, and Alireza Arafi. And while members of the Assembly of Experts would not qualify for sanctions pursuant to Trump’s executive order, Washington should also sanction all 39 members of the Expediency Council, particularly Raisi.
Naming and shaming Jannati and his cohorts would carry powerful symbolism. The protests still consuming Iran indicate that many Iranians contest not merely Tehran’s behavior but also — and perhaps more importantly — its very legitimacy. Khamenei is 80 years old and, in 2014, had prostate surgery. If Jannati outlives Khamenei, he may well play a decisive role in choosing Iran’s next dictator — and ensuring that the Islamic Republic’s bloody reign endures.
The new sanctions would show that Washington objects not merely to Khamenei’s aggression throughout the Middle East, but to the repression that sustains his rule. It’s a message Tehran needs to hear as it continues to conduct increasingly brazen attacks against Washington and its allies in the Persian Gulf. And unless and until the mullahs return to the negotiating table and commit to reversing the full range of their malign conduct, they should know that they — and not Washington — stand the most to lose.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.