Meet the new Chief Justice of Iran


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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Gholam-Hossein appointed Mohseni Ejei as the next Supreme Judge on Thursday following Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the Iranian presidential election. The Supreme Court is important not only for its control over a repressive state organ responsible for silencing dissidents and detaining foreign nationals, but also for its broader power within the Iranian establishment. The head of justice has a seat on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and on the Supreme Economic Coordination Council. He also appoints lawyers to serve on the Guardian Council. This means that the post in Tehran has considerable influence.

Every Chief Justice who has served under Khamenei – Mohammad Yazdi, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Sadegh Larijani, and Ebrahim Raisi – has also been viewed by some observers as potential contenders for his successor as Supreme Leader, if necessary. In fact, it is also possible that Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei will serve as members of an interim leadership council after Khamenei’s death. But of all these clerics who held office, Raisi was the most political, as he ran twice for president, including serving as chief judge in his last and successful election campaign. No other chief judge has done this.

Who is Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei?

Mohseni-Ejei was born in Isfahan in 1956, received his clerical training at Qom Seminary and holds a master’s degree in international law from Azad Islamic University. His career spanned both the intelligence services and the judiciary, served as a representative of the judiciary in the Ministry of Intelligence and as attorney general of the Special Court for Clerics in Tehran and then nationally. He was involved in the executions of dissidents in the 1990s. At the Special Court for Clergy, Ejei made headlines when he persecuted the reformist mayor of Tehran, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, who was a key ally of President Mohammad Khatami. Ejei also bit journalist Issa Saharkhiz during a fight at a press committee meeting. As RFE / RL noted in 2009, Mohseni-Ejei’s website went so far as to include the incident in one place in its official biography.

After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, Mohseni-Ejei was his first secret service minister and held the post until 2009, shortly after the controversial presidential election. The United States then sanctioned him in 2010 under Executive Order 13553, citing his tenure in the Department of Intelligence. The US Treasury Department wrote, “Mohseni-Ejei confirmed that he authorized confrontations with protesters and their arrests … As a result, protesters were detained without any formal charge against them and during that detention the detainees were beaten, held in solitary confinement and denied.” due process by secret service officers under the direction of Mohseni-Ejei. ”The European Union also sanctioned him in 2011 with a similar reason.

Despite Mohseni-Ejei’s role as the loyal enforcer of the system that ensured Ahmadinejad’s victory, he was quickly sacked after the controversial election. Mehr news agency quoted an informed source as saying that Mohseni-Ejei was sacked “after a verbal argument between the intelligence minister and the president at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting over the appointment of” Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as first vice-president. Mashaei and Ahmadinejad – especially in his second term – have been widely questioned as the role of clergy in the Islamic Republic. Mohseni-Ejei embodied the core of the clerical establishment, so his early distancing from Ahmadinejad was a prelude to the eventual marginalization of Ahmadinejad and his orbit.

After his break with Ahmadinejad, Khamenei still managed to find a landing site for Mohseni-ejei. He was appointed attorney general in 2009 and held that office until 2014. Mohseni-Ejei was then appointed first deputy chief judge, switching roles with Raisi, who in 2014 moved from first deputy chairman to attorney general. Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei also share experiences as attorneys general of the Special Court for Clergy and as a student at the Haghani School.

Mohseni-Ejei’s feud with Ahmadinejad continued during these years. In 2017 they became embroiled in a war of words in which Mohseni-Ejei accused Ahmadinejad, the president under whom he served, of “insane”. This prompted Ahmadinejad’s former vice president for executive affairs to backlash, comparing Mohseni-Ejei to Heinrich Himmler, former SS commander in chief in Nazi Germany.

When Raisi became Chief Justice in 2019, Mohseni-Ejei remained Raisi’s first deputy chief justice, despite being appointed to the post under Raisi’s predecessor Sadegh Larijani. Over the years, reports have surfaced of tension between the two men as Raisi was never able to name his own deputy.

What are the implications of Mohseni-Ejei’s appointment?

Mohseni-Ejei will jump into the sanctuary of national security decisions as a member of the SNSC. Indeed, the dynamic will change as Raisi becomes the first president to preside over the judiciary prior to his presidency. Whether he can better control the debate in the SNSC in light of this experience remains to be seen. Mohseni-Ejei’s longstanding personal relationship with Raisi is put to the test here, especially when he has ambitions for the future. In fact, it is not the first time that Mohseni-Ejei has worked for the SNSC – he previously sat at the table as secret service minister. But the new chairman occupies a platform that positions him differently on this second tour of the SNSC. He was previously a presidential candidate – albeit with Khamenei’s blessing. Now, however, Mohseni-Ejei’s power stems from his direct appointment by the Supreme Leader to his post, thereby increasing his influence. Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei will continue to be well positioned to tackle unrest in the years to come.

Likewise, in addition to the top Iranian leader, the heads of two out of three parts of the Iranian government are now led by sanctioned persons. This will complicate and increase the domestic political costs of engagement with Tehran in the western capitals.

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