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Hope for Internal Moderation Fades after Election of Head of Assembly of Experts

Jannati’s ascendance to the head of the body was described by Reuters as a likely “surprise” to the Iranian electorate, which voted on the composition of the Assembly in national elections in February, which were portrayed as a victory for relative moderates in much of the media. Jannati himself only narrowly retained his place on the supervisory body, being the very last of the 16 top candidates who were elected from the capital city of Tehran.

This outcome was presumably made possible in part because Jannati already holds the position of head of the Guardian Council, another federal-level body of clerics, which serves to review legislation and candidates to high office for compatibility with the Iranian regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In the run-up to the February elections, the council famously eliminated up to 90 percent of the candidates who were recognized as reformists.

The purported reformist victories in the subsequent election were only achieved by filling out candidate lists with traditional conservatives, thus leading some reformist politicians and citizens to accuse President Hassan Rouhani and other supposed moderate or betraying left-leaning positions. In spite of the high expectations presented in some media for Rouhani’s wing of Iranian politics, a great many citizens on the political left were quoted as saying that they planned to sit out the elections, citing a lack of real prospects for change.

These criticisms helped to undermine the notion of a genuine victory for the reform wing, and now Jannati’s newfound leadership of the Assembly of Experts has done the same. That is, as Reuters points out, the latest developments are “a sign that hardliners are still in firm control of the body in charge of choosing the next supreme leader.”

The Assembly of Experts is elected in eight year cycles, meaning that its current membership will indeed choose the new supreme leader unless Khamenei exceeds most expectations regarding his lifespan. It is, however, quite possible that the head of the organization will have to be replaced before Khamenei, as Jannati is already 90 years old. But there is little reason to believe that this will have a substantial impact on the ultimate outcome of the selection process, considering that the membership that elected Jannati will otherwise remain in place.

By endorsing Jannati’s leadership, the rest of the body has tacitly endorsed his public platforms, which are renowned for being virulently anti-Western and anti-Israeli. An Assembly of Experts with this composition promises to be a long-term threat to what many see as President Rouhani’s pursuit of détente with Iran’s traditional Western enemies. On the other hand, some doubt that Rouhani is sincerely committed to such a project in the first place. They argue that his contribution to a nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers was only motivated by the same strategy that he described years earlier when he was the country’s lead nuclear negotiator: maintaining a calm environment in which Iran can quietly pursue some of those activities that brought it under foreign scrutiny.

Still others insist that it doesn’t much matter whether or not Rouhani’s alternative foreign policy positions are severe, since the office of the president wields very little power in the Islamic Republic. Ultimate authority on virtually all matters of state rest firmly in the hands of the supreme leader, and Khamenei has expressed tremendous skepticism about the nuclear deal, as well as voicing harsh criticisms toward the US in the wake of that deal’s conclusion.

Khamenei’s own rhetoric has been both echoed and amplified by other hardline forces inside the Iranian regime, which also remain effectively unchallenged by the outcomes of February’s elections. Especially prominent among them are officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the law enforcement and paramilitary organization that wields considerable influence over Iranian law and society, and also by some accounts over the Assembly of Experts.

It was the IRGC that was behind the January seizure of 10 American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters near Farsi Island. It was also the IRGC that carried out at least six ballistic missile tests since the conclusion of a preliminary nuclear agreement. Each of these test-launches was conducted in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions calling upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on nuclear-capable weapons. Some of the launches involved weapons that were painted with the words “Israel must be wiped out.”

On Tuesday, Christian Today reported that Ahmad Karimpour, a senior advisor to the IRGC’s foreign expeditionary Quds Force, had doubled down on that rhetoric by declaring in an interview with Iranian media that the IRGC would be capable of destroying Israel “in less than eight minutes. Karimpour added that such action would be taken specifically on the order of the supreme leader, thus highlighting the hardline attitudes toward foreign adversaries that are expected of Khamenei and of his successor.

Optimistic narratives about the February elections frequently suggested that a less hardline Assembly of Experts could have a serious moderating impact on Iran’s long-term foreign policy. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a supposedly moderate former president and close ally of President Rouhani, even went so far as to suggest that the Assembly could challenge the concept of a single supreme leader and replace it with a governing council.

Jannati’s election undermines such ideas, which were apparently not given widespread merit in the first place. And more than that, it further undermines the notion that current US policy toward the Islamic Republic could help to encourage moderating trends within the regime. That narrative came under particular scrutiny last month in the wake of a New York Times Magazine profile of White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, detailing how he used claims about President Rouhani’s moderation in order to make the nuclear deal more palatable in the American media.

On Sunday, The Tower added more detail to the account of how this narrative took hold. In particular, it highlighted collaboration between media outlets like NPR and funding organizations like the Ploughshares Fund, which provided 700,000 dollars in grants to NPR since 2005 and mentioned Iran in all grant communications between the two organizations since 2010.

The Ben Rhodes profile indicated that the Obama administration’s Iran policy had been established before President Rouhani came to power in 2013. In this sense, the notion of a potential moderate near-term future for the country served pre-established ends, leading many to accuse the Obama White House of willful fabrication following Rouhani’s election.

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