There’s been a little recent fallout from Iran’s Majles/Assembly of Experts elections, and it hasn’t looked great for Iranian moderates despite their significant electoral successes. Ali Larijani, the conservative Majles speaker, won reelection to that post earlier this week. Ideologically, Larijani is usually lumped in with the so-called “Principlist” camp, the group that wants to preserve the Islamic Republic more or less in its original form and is closely identified with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They’re generally contrasted with the “Reformist” camp, who are closely identified with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and want to see Iran become freer, more democratic, more protective of human rights, and so on.
The problem with slicing Iran into these two parts is that, particularly in a country whose political system doesn’t incorporate formal parties that would allow people to self-identify as one thing or another, the division misses a lot of nuance. Larijani is a “Principlist,” but depending on how you define “Principlist” so is current President Hassan Rouhani–Rouhani hasn’t called for any reforms that would significantly change the structure of the Iranian state–yet almost nobody would put Rouhani into that camp. Larijani, meanwhile, fell out with Ahmadinejad and has forged a political alliance with Rouhani that’s been so strong that other Principlists have been angry with him. His reelection as speaker may be less a victory for the Principlists than a product of Larijani’s broad political appeal.
You can’t, however, say that about the new Assembly of Experts chairman:
The man who was on the verge of being eliminated in the recent Assembly of Experts election has been elected as the chairman of the clerical body. Conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati won the May 24 vote with the backing of 51 of the assembly’s 89 members.
The vote was between Jannati, moderate Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini and conservative Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Amini was believed to be the candidate of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who declined to run for the chairmanship, as Al-Monitor has previously reported.
Amini was considered such a presumptive favorite that it was suggested that other candidates for the chairmanship might step aside for him. But Jannati, who also chairs Iran’s Guardian Council and was therefore responsible for the pre-election candidate purge that was intended to rig the contest for the hardliners, took most observers by surprise and won the vote. There are two immediate takeaways from Jannati’s victory. First, success or failure in the popular vote doesn’t mean much when it comes to internal elections like this one. Jannati barely held on to his Assembly seat in the election, but now he’s leading the body. Second, the Guardian Council’s purge really did work. “Reformists,” or whatever you want to call the pro-Rouhani faction, won as lopsided an electoral victory as it was possible for them to win, but the deck was so stacked against them by the Guardian Council that the makeup of the Assembly obviously still didn’t change all that much. Had more “Reformist” candidates been allowed to run, it’s possible that the Assembly would look considerably different right now. It was always unfair to expect Iranian politics to change overnight, but particularly so when the system has been gamed to favor the status quo.
This evidence that the Assembly is still pretty conservative is troubling insofar as this Assembly is likely, given Khamenei’s age and health, to choose Iran’s next Supreme Leader. It seems likely, after Jannati’s election as chair, that the Assembly will select someone who resembles Khamenei rather than somebody who might be more reform-minded, but this isn’t a given. Although it has the final say in the process, the Assembly also has to be responsive to a whole host of other political actors and to the tenor of Iranian public opinion when it makes its choice, so nothing is set in stone.