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New Head Of Iran's Judiciary Is A Controversial Figure Who Enjoys Some Popularity

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and newly appointed head of Judiciary Ebrahim Raeesi, undated. March 7, 2019
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and newly appointed head of Judiciary Ebrahim Raeesi, undated. March 7, 2019

Ebrahim Raeesi is now officially the Islamic Republic's Judiciary chief. He was appointed to the much coveted position by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Thursday, March 7.

His appointment, however, came as no surprise, as Iran watchers more or less expected it for months now.

His appointment is for five years, but like his predecessors, his mandate is likely to be renewed for a second five-year-term if Khamenei is still alive by then.

Most Iranians remember Raeesi as President Hassan's Rouhani's most serious rival in the 2017 presidential elections. Older Iranians also remember him as the youngest judge in the summary trials of political prisoners in 1988, when the panel issued death sentences for thousands of young men and women, mainly members of Marxist and Islamist groups.

Raeesi acknowledges that he was one of a handful of hanging judges, but denies having issued any death sentence.

Within minutes of his appointment, leading reformist daily newspaper Sharq called him an Ayatollah, a Shiite clerical rank high above Hojjat Ol-Eslam, which is what he is and Khamenei addressed him as such in his mandate.

However, Sharq's behavior was in line with many reformist figures’ pleasant comments about Raeesi. The Rouhani administration daily also ran a report full of praise for the new Judiciary chief.

Raeesi was appointed as the superintendent of the wealthy holy shrine in Mashad in March 2016. He started his career in 1979 and before 1994 served as prosecutor in several Iranian cities including Karaj, Hamedan and Tehran.

He later served as the head of the State Inspectorate Organisation, first deputy head of the judiciary and as prosecutor-general of Iran until 2016 when he was put in charge of the holy shrine, Astan-e Qods.

He won nearly 40 percent of the votes in the 2017 presidential elections. Around 16 million Iranians voted for him, although election results in Iran are not very reliable.

Nevertheless, the large chunk of vote he received is unmatched by other underdogs in any other presidential election in Iran, and this gives him a political weight that could change the balance of power in Iran, particularly now that President Hassan Rouhani is at the weakest point of his career due to the failure of the nuclear agreement with the West, and U.S. sanctions that have paralyzed the country's economy.

Born on December 14, 1960, Raeesi is said to be one of the contestants for the post of Supreme Leader in post-Khamenei Iran. He wears a black turban, meaning he is considered a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad in Shia Islam.

Raeesi is the son-in-law of powerful hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer leader of Mashad and Khamenei's representative in Khorasan Province. Raeesi's wife, Jamileh, has a PhD in education and teaches at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran.

He started his religious studies at the Islamic Seminary of Qom at the age of 15 and continued his studies at the highly regarded Motahari Seminary in Tehran and was a student of scholars such as Grand Ayatollahs Nuri-Hamadani, Fazel Lanakarani, and Ali Meshkini.

Raeesi has a Master's degree and a doctorate in Islamic Jurisprudence [fiqh]. This makes him possibly the most knowledgeable Chief Justice in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic.

During the 2017 presidential campaign, he did not use hateful speech against the United States and the West; something unlike most other Islamic Republic politicians.

In terms of impact on Iran's political landscape, Raeesi's appointment could be hard to digest by Rouhani, although he was constantly being teased and his authority and Islamic credentials questioned by Raeesi's predecessor Sadeq Amoli Larijan.

Rouhani might find it hard to work closely with his political rival, whom he and his supporters criticized during the election campaign in 2017. Raeesi is still a rival for Rouhani as a contestant for succeeding Khamenei and has the advantage of higher education and a black turban. Rouhani wears a white turban and his religious learning has been seriously challenged by critics.

On the other hand, it appears that while Rouhani is no longer favored by the media, Raeesi is becoming the media's darling. He also enjoys tremendous support from Iran's state TV which ignores Rouhani.

In terms of personality, Raeesi is calm and less vocal, appearing less nervous than Rouhani whose occasional fits of anger has annoyed some, even in reformist circles.