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Iran's Top Military Commanders Praise Khamenei's Likely Successor

Ebrahim Raeesi, Chief Justice of Iran and a likely candidate to succeed Ali Khamenei. April 28, 2020

In a move unprecedented in Iran's political dynamics, two top military commanders have openly lent support to Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raeesi, who is the most talked about candidate to replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran's next supreme leader.

Mohammad Baqeri, chief of the joint staff of Iranian armed forces wrote in a letter to Raeesi on June 23 that that he was "prepared to cooperate with the Judiciary in any form." This was the first time Baqeri sent such a letter since taking office in 2016. An even more important point is that he made it known to everyone that has supported Raeesi.

In the letter, he called the hardliner cleric "A pious, revolutionary and brave jurisconsult whose actions have brought about hope and satisfaction among the nation."

Meanwhile, in a similar letter, IRGC commander in chief Hossein Salami commented that Raeesi's measures "have instilled hope and confidence in society."

Both senior officers thanked the Judiciary "for its confrontation with financial corruption."

The two messages can be viewed as part of a widespread campaign to boost Raeesi's popularity, raise his profile and trumpet his "success." This campaign is mainly furthered by highlighting his "strict measures" in confronting financial corruption.

While a media campaign has been going on to groom Raeesi (Raisi) for the post since his appointment by Khamenei as the head of Iran's powerful Judiciary in early 2019, the mid-ranking cleric himself has been at times going out of his way to take part in populist campaigns. Sometimes he intervenes in executive affairs or announces milder positions on cultural matters such as freedom of speech on social media, to appease younger Iranians.

At the same time, some of Raeesi’s "strict measures" appear to be aimed at intimidating dissidents and showing his ruthless will to suppress any dissent and protest. A clear example of this is the verdict issued on Tuesday about three young protesters who took to the streets in November 2019 to protest an unusual rise in gas prices. The Judiciary has condemned the three young men to death.

Radio Farda's Iran analyst Reza Haqiqatnezhad has observed in a June 24 tweet, "Next to Raeesi's gesture of campaigning against corruption, the death sentence against the November protesters, prison sentences against those who protested the downing of a civilian airliner, harsh treatment of labor and civil activists, and the heavy sentences handed to students, women and other dissidents reveal his true face. His project is not political suppression. It is one of national suppression. And he wants to showcase his abilities."

One of the biggest ongoing cases of financial corruption is about a corrupt gang within the Judiciary that has been actively operating for some 15 years, led by the deputy of former judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani, who was another possible candidate to replace Khamenei. Many see the corruption trial as Raeesi’s attempt to weaken his rival once and for all.

At the same, Iranian media have shown an interest in Raeesi's relations with military men. A number of commanders went to Mashhad in 2016 to congratulate him when he was appointed as the chief custodian of the holy shrine in that city. The support continued after Raeesi was appointed as Judiciary Chief.

Meanwhile, Iran's state television has portrayed him as a majestic figure in well-prepared interviews, quite a few times since 2019, most recently earlier this week. He sat on a special set during the interviews with red carpets under his feet. The media campaign has been part of the attempts that have given rise to the likelihood of Raeesi being a strong candidate for the post of Supreme Leader after Khamenei.

The body that has to name the next leader is the Assembly of Experts chaired by Ahmad Jannati, 93, whose deputy happens to be Ebrahim Raeesi who has been sanctioned by both the European Union and the United States for gross violations of human rights, including his key part in murdering thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

The U.S. government says Raeesi is part of Khamenei's inner circle and one of those who carry out Khamenei's destabilizing policies and his orders to conduct terror and suppression. According to international human rights watchdogs, the policy of suppression of Iranian dissidents has been escalated since Raeesi took office about 18 months ago. These include the death sentences for November protesters, and jail sentence against civil activists who protested the killing of 176 passengers of a Ukrainian civilian airliner shot down by IRGC missiles in January.