Iran’s judiciary gets dragged into the political dogfight
Beirut - Iran’s 1979 constitution proclaimed the judiciary “an independent power” headed by a “just mujtahid” — expert in Islamic law — but the interweaving of religion and politics in the Islamic Republic soon undermined the assertion as judges such as Sadeq Khalkhali dealt swiftly with leading figures of the old regime and others opposing the new one.
Appointed for a 5-year term by the supreme leader, Iran’s judiciary chief is assigned an apparently modest responsibility for the “organisational structure of the judicial system” but post-holders have been powerful figures. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, judiciary chief from 1989-99, went on to lead the Assembly of Experts, the elected body that chooses the supreme leader.
His successor, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (1999-2009), is today considered a possible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. So too is current judiciary chief, Sadegh Larijani, appointed by Khamenei in 2009 aged just 48.
Larijani has few qualms about entering the political fray, which is heating up as the May presidential election approaches. At the same time, the January 8th death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a major political figure for decades, at the age of 82 has further highlighted Khamenei’s mortality as he nears his 78th birthday, also in May.
Relations between the judiciary head and president have long been tetchy. Iranian President Hassan Rohani has pressed for leniency for Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the 2009 reformist green movement under house arrest. In November, Larijani and Rohani traded accusations that the other wanted to close newspapers.
The rivalry intensified at the beginning of January when Larijani alleged Rohani took contributions for his 2013 presidential campaign from Babak Zanjani, a businessman involved in evading Western oil sanctions who in 2016 was sentenced to death for embezzlement and “spreading corruption on Earth”.
While principlists often denounce technocrats linked to Rohani’s government, usually over high pay or perks, this is the first time the president has faced such fire.
Larijani was responding, however, to Rohani’s criticisms in December of judicial handling of the Zanjani case.
The president suggested Iranians wondered where an alleged missing $3 billion from oil sales had gone, pointing out that no answer would be forthcoming if Zanjani were executed. Rohani and Larijani each demanded the other publish transparent accounts, respectively, for 2013 election expenses and the judiciary.
Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii, puts the president ahead on points, saying: “I think Larijani has proven he’s no match for Rohani in the public arena. His angry responses to Rohani’s cool pokes revealed a suspect temperament, which is important for the position of the leader. Khamenei will defend the judiciary as an institution, in public, but not the man who heads it.”
Whoever leads on points, such a bitter public spat between two senior figures does not augur well for a smooth presidential election in May, when Rohani is expected to seek a second term. The potential for conflict might be even greater if, as many suspect, both Larijani and Rohani are would-be successors to Khamenei as leader, a decision to be taken in due course by the 88 clerics on the Assembly of Experts.
“The presidential election is important,” said an Iranian academic, “but the main goal is the succession to Ayatollah Khamenei. Both Rohani and Larijani have a chance only if they are still in their positions, as the head of judiciary and government. If Rohani loses in May, his chances will be near zero of being the next leader.”
The public row might benefit other potential candidates for leader — notably Shahroudi and Ebrahim Raeisi, appointed by Khamenei in 2016 to head the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad but its tone and content threaten to bring the political system into disrepute at a time when Iran may face stronger pressure from US President Donald Trump.
Hence Khamenei’s warning to Larijani and Rohani in a speech in Qom, expressing his hope that “recent arguments” would be resolved “with the help of God”.
“I expect trying times for the leader,” said Farhi. “He’s had a rough time playing a balancer since 2009, in some ways ceding it to Rafsanjani after he’d publicly acknowledged his own preference for the views of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [fundamentalist president, 2005-13].”
Perhaps the leader’s worries also surfaced in his condolence letter for Rafsanjani, who spent much of his long career managing disputes within Iran’s fractious political elite. Noting his differences of opinion with Rafsanjani “in recent years”, Khamenei wrote that the “devils working… to take advantage of those differences… could never influence his deep individual affection for humble me”.
In stressing his links with Rafsanjani — calling him in funeral prayers at Tehran University a “companion for 59 years” — Khamenei may have thought of the future as well as the past.
Iran’s leader must wonder how well the succeeding generation, including Rohani and Larijani, will overcome their differences in the interests of the Islamic Republic.