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Why Iran’s Reformists Welcome A Hardliner As Judiciary Chief?

Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in Tehran on May 17, 2017.
Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in Tehran on May 17, 2017.

In a strange twist some Iranian reformists have welcomed the likely appointment of hardliner cleric Ebrahim Raeesi as Iran’s next Judiciary chief.

This comes less than one week after Abdolkarim Soroush, a prominent reform figure characterized Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, as one of the most knowledgeable men in Iran’s history.

Even some conservatives have interpreted the move as a way of pleasing the hardline-dominated establishment to garner a share for reformists in the country’s political life.

Raeesi (Raeisi) will be the first Iranian Judiciary Chief who has been defeated in a presidential election. He competed with Hassan Rouhani in 2017 and lost the election, ironically, because reformist groups constantly reminded the public of his alleged involvement in the mass murder of political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Raeesi’s appointment as head of one of the three branches of the government regardless of his failure in the test of popularity, has been regarded as a sign of Islamic Republic leader Ali Khamenei’s stubbornness vis-à-vis Rouhani and his supporters.

Nevertheless, some reformist figures are now expressing hope that Raeesi’s appointment would lead to “positive changes”. Some have pointed out that he will be the first Judiciary Chief who has in fact a track record as a judge. Some others have hoped that Raeesi might remove some of the so called “hanging judges” from their posts.

A reformist figure and a relative of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Shahab Tabatabai, wrote an article in reformist daily Sharq in which he praised Raeesi for his long record at the Judiciary and opined that he should not be judged based on his election platform. Hardline daily Javan, affiliated with IRGC exclaimed why Tabatabai would praise Raisi as “a handsome man.”

Tabatabai also gave credit to Raeesi for acquitting an intellectual magazine’s editor in the 1990s, labelling it as an unprecedented decision.

Javan wrote that a reformist’s praise for a hardliner is “suspicious,” and asked: “Is this the same Raeesi you introduced in 2017 as a violent hardliner and a supporter of torture and execution?”

Another reform figure, Hossein Musavi Tabrizi, a former prosecutor-general, told Ensaf News website: “I have not seen any bad behavior on the part of Mr. Raeesi. When I knew him, he had a pleasant character and was not violent.”

According to Sharq, both Tabrizi and former Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, a reform-minded figure, have predicted that “the situation of the Judiciary will possibly be better under Raeesi.”

Mohammad Reza Khabbaz, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, whose leader Mehdi Karroubi has been under house arrest during the past eight years, has said that “the country should benefit from Mr. Raeesi’s valuable presence.”

Outspoken reformist MP, Mahmoud Sadeqi has also welcomed Raeesi’s likely appointment, although his welcoming tweet has triggered a lot of criticisms.

At the same time, no reform figure has been seen to react negatively to the appointment. Either they thought their reaction would be ignored or be costly for them.Some may have thought welcoming Raeesi could soften his position about reformists.

Prominent reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi has a different view. He wrote: “During the 2017 election campaign, Raeesi showed that unlike Rouhani or conservative candidate Qalibaf, he was not a political trickster. He was portrayed then as a simple man. Some people even liked his body language in a meeting with a pop singer. That is how he won 40 percent of the votes.”

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in the city of Mashhad, on May 17, 2017.
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in the city of Mashhad, on May 17, 2017.

He added: “This image has made Raeesi more desirable than his predecessors at the Judiciary. However, one needs to wait and see his performance.”

The comment, however, was met with criticism on the part of reformist figure Mostafa Tajzadeh, who spent time in prison, said you cannot pin your hopes on Raeesi to meet the society’s requirements. “Iran needs an impartial, independent and accountable Judiciary,” he stressed.

The Judiciary under the last two Judiciary chiefs, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Sadeq Amoli Larijani has been widely criticized by lawyers, activists and even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for unfair trials and for giving in to pressures and interventions by intelligence organizations.

For conservatives, however, Raeesi’s appointment has a symbolic meaning. They believe Khamenei might be grooming Raeesi for the post of Supreme Leader in the future. That could also be another reason for reformist’s soft tone in their comments about the man. In this case, they are playing some kind of delicate game they are not likely to win as their past experiences indicate. After the reformist administration of President Khatami (mid-1990s to mid 2000s), Iranian reformists have not been on the winning side of political wranglings.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda
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    Ehsan Mehrabi

    Ehsan Mehrabi is an Iranian journalist and an expert on Iran's domestic politics. Mehrabi was arrested with a group of other journalists on February 7, 2010 in Iran and served a one-year prison sentence. He resides in Germany and is a contributor to Radio Farda.