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Hard-line clerics promoted as Khamenei consolidates power

This week’s changes in Iran’s judiciary system and the Expediency Council will have significant implications for Iran’s domestic political dynamics and foreign policy issues. 

An Iranian judiciary spokesman, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, confirmed in a news conference that Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani will be stepping down as chief of the judiciary and he will be replaced by Ebrahim Raisi. 

Larijani was recently appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the role of head of Iran’s Expediency Council. This is a promotion since, if there is any dispute regarding legislation between the Guardian Council and the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), the 12 unelected jurists of the Expediency Council will have the final say. In addition, the Expediency Council directly advises the supreme leader. Intriguingly, Larijani was also appointed by Khamenei to be one of the six theologian members of the Guardian Council. 

Larijani is considered to be Khamenei’s confidant. He has frequently voiced harsh opinions against those who criticize or question Khamenei’s policies. For example, he famously warned  President Hassan Rouhani that any attempt to invoke opposition against the supreme leader would be strongly confronted. Larijani even believes that it is against the law for the Assembly of Experts to supervise Khamenei.

Khamenei also appointed Raisi, another conservative cleric and hard-line loyalist, as the head of the judiciary branch. Raisi began his career after the 1979 revolution as the chief prosecutor of Karaj, Iran’s fourth-largest city, and as a prosecutor of Hamadan province in western Iran. Later, he was appointed as the deputy prosecutor of Tehran, where he became known as the head of the “Death Commission.” In 1988, one of the world’s largest mass executions occurred, with as many as 30,000 people executed, including children and pregnant women. Iran’s former grand Ayatollah, the late Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who fiercely condemned the executions, named Raisi as one of the major orchestrators. He called the perpetrators criminal, saying: “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the (1979) revolution and history will condemn us for it… History will write you down as criminals.”

After years of cracking down on opposition, facilitating executions and consolidating the power of the Islamic Republic, Raisi swiftly climbed the political ladder. He was appointed as the prosecutor of Tehran, head of the General Inspection Office, attorney general of Iran, and finally he was promoted under the Rouhani government to head of Astan Quds Razavi, which has billions of dollars in revenues. Rouhani’s government also promoted other members of the Death Commission, including Mostafa Pourmohammadi — the former representative of the intelligence ministry to the notorious Evin Prison — who served as justice minister between 2013 and 2017.

The appointments of Raisi and Larijani as the heads of the two most powerful institutions in the Islamic Republic signify several other issues.

First of all, Khamenei is attempting to further consolidate his power, his hard-line base, and remove any opposition to his policies. The judiciary has the power to crack down on society by sentencing, imprisoning and executing critics. Appointing the head of the Death Commission as the head of the judiciary sends a message to the population that opposition to the regime, particularly the supreme leader, will be dealt with by an iron fist. 

Iran’s judiciary also plays a significant role in providing leverage to the Islamic Republic against the West by imprisoning foreign citizens and helping the regime use them as political pawns for advancing Khamenei’s foreign policy objectives. 

In addition, as the head of the Expediency Council, Larijani can play a crucial role in coalescing Iranian lawmakers, pushing for specific laws and getting the required votes to pass legislation that Khamenei favors. By this approach, Khamenei can assure that not only are his policies are carried out through his trusted man, but he can also dodge accountability and responsibility with the public in case these policies fail. 

Secondly, Khamenei’s swift appointments signify the fact that the regime is under significant pressure domestically, regionally and internationally. Almost three years ago, it took Khamenei more than half a year to appoint a new chief for the Expediency Council. The widespread demonstrations of 2018 due to the political and economic crisis, the US sanctions on the regime’s banking systems and energy sector, and the currency devaluation have almost brought the regime to its knees. 

Finally, by promoting Raisi and Larijani, Khamenei has basically groomed and paved the way for one of his most trusted men to succeed him as supreme leader.

In a nutshell, Khamenei’s appointment of his most trusted clerics as the heads of the judiciary and Expediency Council strengthens the hard-liners’ base, crushes the opposition, and smooths the supreme leader’s succession plans.