DUBAI (Reuters) - A powerful anti-Western cleric was chosen on Tuesday as the head of Iran's new Assembly of Experts, in a sign that hardliners are still in firm control of the body in charge of choosing the next supreme leader.
Ahmad Jannati, 90, is a an outspoken critic of President Hassan Rouhani and his attempts to end Iran's global isolation by normalising ties with the West.
The 88-member assembly, consisting mostly of elderly clerics, is expected to choose the successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 77 and rumoured to be in frail health.
The supreme leader has the final say on all state matters, including foreign policy. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints the heads of the judiciary, state broadcasting and major economic conglomerates. By comparison, the president has little power.
In a letter to the new assembly, carried by state media, Khamenei asked the new members to "guard the Islamic and revolutionary identity" of Iran and pay attention to the "personal and political piety of the (next) supreme leader".
The selection of Jannati, with 51 votes according to state media, as the new head is likely to surprise voters in the February election who managed to block many hardliners from keeping their seats in the assembly. Jannati had squeezed in as the last of 16 members elected in the capital Tehran.
Jannati is also the chairman of the Guardian Council, a hardline vetting body that disqualified the majority of prominent reformist and many moderate candidates from running in the February elections.
Even by the standards of Iran's clerical establishment, Jannati stands out for his virulently anti-Western opinions, once accusing the West of having created al Qaeda and describing U.S. forces in Iraq as "bloodthirsty wolves".
Rouhani and his key ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are also members of the assembly.
Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by Ralph Boulton