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May 24, 8:24 AM EDT

Hard-line cleric voted leader of Iran's Assembly of Experts



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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- A hard-line Iranian cleric who has been in the country's power structure since its 1979 Islamic Revolution was chosen on Tuesday to lead the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that picks the country's next supreme leader.

The selection of 89-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an ultraconservative who called for the execution of opposition activists after Iran's disputed 2009 election and asked Iraqis to be suicide bombers against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, signals the power hard-liners still wield in Iran despite a recent nuclear deal with world powers.

In Tuesday's vote, Jannati received the backing of 55 members of the 88-seat Assembly and beat two other candidates for the post of speaker, moderate Ebrahim Amini and conservative Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi. He will serve as the body's speaker for two years.

Influential moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who has helmed the Assembly in the past, did not offer himself as a candidate in the voting. Moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration secured the nuclear deal last year, also is a member of the Assembly.

After the vote, Jannati reiterated recent comments by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the Assembly should remain "revolutionary," state TV reported.

"I hope to work in a way that leads to happiness of the almighty God, the supreme leader and the people," Jannati said.

Clerics in the 88-seat Assembly serve eight-year terms in the body after being elected by popular vote. Incoming clerics were elected in a February poll that saw moderate candidates and their allies make gains in the country's parliament.

However, conservatives hold sway over the Assembly, which supervises the country's supreme leader, who has final say on state matters. The body's real power emerges after the supreme leader is gone, working as an Iranian version of the Vatican's College of Cardinals when they gather to pick a new pope.

The Assembly has done that only once since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In 1989, it picked Khamenei to succeed his late mentor, the Islamic Revolution patriarch Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Jannati has been in the power structure of Iran for decades. Jannati already serves as secretary of Iran's powerful constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting candidates for the Assembly of Experts, as well as those running in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz said he believed Jannati's election showed Khamenei's influence on the panel, as well as Jannati's own in being able to vet and pick candidates from his post on the Guardian Council.

"Jannati is symbol of continuation" of hard-line policies, Leilaz said.

Jannati's biography shows that as well. He traveled the world in 1989 to seek Muslim nations' support for the death fatwa, or edict, issued by clerics against author Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses."

He accused Qatar in 2002 of "committing treason against all Muslims" by hosting a U.S. air base, and urged Iraqis in 2003 to "resort to martyrdom operations to expel the United States." In 2009, he remarked during Friday prayers that he wanted someone to shoot then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Jannati is widely believed to have been a major backer of Iran's former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After Iran's disputed 2009 vote that saw Ahmadinejad re-elected, Jannati warned security forces that any soft treatment of detained activists would be considered treason.

"Nobody gives a flower to his murderer," he said at the time.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Follow Nasser Karimi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ncarrimi . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/nasser-karimi .

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