Iran’s new judiciary chief eyes Khamenei’s succession

Ebrahim Raeisi, like his predecessor at the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, is no reformist.
Sunday 10/03/2019
A 2017 file picture shows Iran’s new judiciary chief Ebrahim Raeisi speaking at Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran. (AP)
Another hardliner. A 2017 file picture shows Iran’s new judiciary chief Ebrahim Raeisi speaking at Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran. (AP)

Confirmation from Iran’s judiciary spokesman that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raeisi as the new judiciary chief appears to boost Raeisi’s national stature as a possible successor to Khamenei.

It has been only three years since Khamenei, 79, named Raeisi, 58, head of Astan Qods Razavi, the well-endowed foundation managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, and it has been less than two years since Raeisi fought a credible campaign and claimed 38% of votes in the 2017 presidential election as Hassan Rohani won 57% to gain a second term.

Raeisi, like his predecessor at the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, is no reformist. In 2014, Raeisi accused the West of promoting homosexuality under the guise of human rights and is reported to have defended the amputation of the hands of thieves.

While his high profile is relatively new, Raeisi’s long career includes stints as attorney general (2014-16), first vice-chief justice (2004-14), chairman of the judicial body overseeing state bodies (1994-2004) and Tehran prosecutor (1989-94). In 2012 he was appointed prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy, a body answerable to the leader that is outside the usual judicial process and has indicted several reform-minded clerics.

In 1988, when summary trials and executions of 3,000-5,000 political prisoners followed orders from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Raeisi was Tehran deputy prosecutor. Raeisi later reported on his website that he was handed, alongside Jaffar Nayyeri, “important cases” by Khomeini in the Iranian year 1367 (1988-89).

Historian Ervand Abrahamian in his 1999 book, “Tortured Confessions,” said Nayyeri was an assistant to the Tehran special commission, set up alongside others “with instructions to execute Mojaheds [members of the opposition armed group People’s Mujahideen of Iran] and leftists as mortads (apostates).”

Nearly 30 years later, little in Iran is so improvised. Today, “principlists” are savvy on social media and have built a web of relationships linking the leader’s office, clerics and Friday prayer leaders, military, religious foundations and the bureaucracy.

Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and author of “Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran,” said Raeisi had in recent years honed his political skills. “As head of Astan Qods, Raeisi was very good at using the media, networking and with populist activities aimed at the poor around Mashhad. I think he will continue all three as head of the judiciary.”

As to the type of initiatives Raeisi might take, Golkar recalled a scheme drawn up in the judiciary in 2004 but never implemented. This envisaged local cells, he said, drawn partly from the Basij (the mainly part-time militia linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), to be the judiciary’s “eyes and ears… [in] gathering intelligence, crime-fighting, providing religious guidance and identifying criminal people and places.’’

Golkar said he does not expect Raeisi to simplify or make more transparent a complex judicial system including revolutionary courts, special courts for clergy and courts established recently to deal with corruption.

“Nothing will change in terms of rule of law,” said Golkar. “Raeisi has worked in the judiciary all his life and we have seen nothing significant to suggest any positive development.”

Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, which has criticised Raeisi’s appointment, points out he “will be able to choose and dismiss lawyers, select the defence lawyers in all national security-related cases… and review any legislation with judicial content.”

Many suspect Raeisi’s ambitions include succeeding Khamenei. His chief rival for the leadership may be the man he has replaced as judiciary chief, Larijani, 57, now heading the Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between state organs.

For sure, Raeisi’s appointment marks another step in the utter politicisation of Iran’s Islamic regime because he will be the first judiciary chief with little clerical background.

Article 157 of the Constitution refers to the judiciary chief as “a just Mujtahid well versed in judiciary affairs and possessing prudence and administrative abilities,” a mujtahid being a senior cleric qualified for ijtihad, making judgments based on advanced knowledge of religious law, usually taken to mean an ayatollah. This has not impeded Raeisi’s appointment.

“The title [of ayatollah] as used by various news services means very little these days,” said Farideh Farhi, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii. “Raeisi will likely be called an ayatollah across the board upon his appointment. What differentiates Raeisi from past judiciary chiefs is that he would be the first… without any serious position within the ranks of the clerical establishment, the hawza.”

“He has not yet been elevated to such a title [ayatollah] and it won’t be easy either considering he spent only around five years in Qom seminary before becoming a judge at the age of 21,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University in the United States. “He has been really more of a judge-prosecutor than a jurist or mujtahid. It will be interesting to see how they justify the choice.”