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Anti-Western Cleric Picked to Head Iran’s Council of Experts

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian presidency, hard-line Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati speaks during the inaugural meeting of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran, May 24, 2016.

A powerful anti-Western cleric was chosen Tuesday as the head of Iran’s recently elected Assembly of Experts.

Ahmad Jannati, 90, is an outspoken critic of President Hassan Rouhani and his attempts to end Iran’s global isolation by normalizing ties with the West. His election could represent a setback for the hoped-for integration of Iran into the world community.

Jannati, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was chosen by Iran’s freshly elected 88-member Assembly of Experts, which convened Tuesday in its first session since results of polling were announced last month.

Iranian state TV announced that Ayatollah Jannati garnered 51 of the 88 votes to win the post. Conservatives were reported to have lost a number of seats during the hotly contested election in March.

Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose successor will be chosen by the Assembly of Experts when he dies, told the country’s top leaders that the body had an extremely important role to play in governing the country and that he wanted it to think and act in a revolutionary manner.

Anticipated outcome

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who now lives in Paris, spoke to VOA about the selection.

He said he knew from the outset of the voting process for the Assembly of Experts that the candidates more inclined to choose a moderate supreme leader would be eliminated in the electoral process in favor of those who would choose a supreme leader like Ayatollah Khamenei.

Bani Sadr argues that a majority of Iranian religious leaders in the holy city of Qom oppose the current political model, where an omnipotent “Vilayet al Faqih” — or enlightened ruler — presides over the country. He points, however, to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard as the main basis of support for the current political model.

'Symbolic victory'

Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington is more optimistic about the ultimate evolution of Iran’s political system. He insists that the election of a new supreme leader will be a function of the balance of power the day of the election and not of the composition of the Assembly of Experts.

“The history of the Islamic Republic shows that these important turning points are, in the end, much more chaotic and much more unpredictable than an outcome coming out of a formal institution like the Assembly of Experts voting [a specific] way,” he said.

Vatanka goes on to argue that Tuesday’s election of Ayatollah Jannati may be a “symbolic victory” for Ayatollah Khamenei’s camp, but that Rouhani and his team probably did not attempt to put up a fight with the hard-liners over the election.

“Ayatollah Jannati,” he stressed, “is 90 years old and probably won’t be around forever … and President Rouhani and his team probably think there will be another election during the eight-year life of the Assembly of Experts.”