Iranian hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi assumed two critical government posts over the past week, putting the protégé of 79-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on the path to succession for the nation’s highest office.

Khamenei on March 7 elevated Raisi to the position of chief justice, demoting the current chief Sadeq Amoli Larijani.

Then, on Tuesday, Raisi was elected deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the body which oversees the supreme leader and which will one day choose Khamenei’s successor.

Raisi currently serves as the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation (Astan Quds Razavi), a mammoth financial institution that controls the most important shrine in Iran and has an income estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The influential cleric two years ago challenged moderate Hassan Rouhani for the presidency, a bid that ended in failure but which offered a window into his political ambitions. 

Moderate reception

Raisi’s appointment as chief justice was quickly condemned by the US State Department and human rights groups, which criticized his alleged role in the execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in the late 1980s.

But he has also received an unexpectedly warm welcome from reformists at home, including politicians who opposed him during the 2017 presidential campaign. 

Mahmoud Sadeghi, an outspoken reformist member of parliament, welcomed the appointment, saying he was optimistic. That sentiment was echoed by dozens of op-eds in the flagship reformist Shargh Daily. One such opinion piece called him the “best candidate for the post.”

Lawyers, barristers, solicitors, judges, and the Bar Association of Iran have also expressed optimism.

A major reason behind this warm reception is 

Raisi’s extensive professional experience. Raisi climbed the judicial ladder from the bottom-up over four decades. He served as a prosecutor in the city of Karaj outside Tehran in the early 1980s, then was promoted gradually to other positions in the judiciary including chairman of the General Inspection Office, first vice chief justice, and attorney-general.

Reformists count this deep practical knowledge of and experience in the judicial system as an advantage for Raisi, as his qualifications exceed those of the five previous appointees, who were seminary teachers preoccupied with implementing a pristine textual interpretation of Islamic law.

Reformists and legal professionals alike hope that solving everyday judicial problems will now take precedence over traditional and unrealistic injunctions of Islamic law. 

This legal background, however, comes at a price. His appointment goes against a long-standing tradition in which Iranian chief justices were prominent jurists, singled out based on their mastery of Islamic law. While previous chief justices enjoyed legitimacy from their schooling at Qom Seminary, Raisi does not have a solid seminary education and his authority could provoke a backlash from the influential center of Shiite Muslim theology.

Best worst case?

In the wake of Raisi’s appointment as chief justice, reformist outlets widely published an anecdote from an appellate court presided over by Raisi in the early 1990s, in which a writer was sentenced to death by the district court.

Raisi, following a deep conversation with the writer, dismissed the death penalty altogether. The story portrays him as lenient, open-minded, and moderate.

During the 2017 presidential campaign, Raisi was eager not to be portrayed as a radical and endorsed the Iran nuclear deal as a “national document,” however flawed. He nevertheless faced fierce scrutiny from Rouhani, who indirectly implicated Raisi in the executions of political prisoners the late 1980s and referred to his rival as he who knew only prison and execution in the last 38 years.

Reformists have now chosen to ignore Raisi’s past, reasoning that he will be more tolerant than his predecessor, Larijani, and others whose names were floated as nominees for the post, such as First Vice Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, Attorney-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, or Qom Seminary head Ayatollah Alireza A’rafi. Larijani and other hardliners have gained notoriety for provocative and divisive political comments over the past three decades, but the same cannot be said of Raisi. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to highly politicized dossiers such as the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer sentenced this week to 148 lashes and nearly four decades in prison, or a group of environmentalists currently incarcerated, Raisi will have little chance to intervene. Most of these dossiers are handled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Office of the Supreme Leader.

Additionally, some of the most sensitive posts in the judiciary are appointed by the supreme leader. It is known from people familiar with the matter that Khamenei has resisted Raisi’s call for the demotion of the controversial hardliner Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i from his position as first vice chief justice. 

Corruption in focus

Perhaps one of the most important reasons behind the positive reactions to Raisi’s appointment is his focus on corruption and his relatively clean personal record in a beleaguered economy under sanctions. 

His predecessor Larijani stands accused, along with his family, of major acts of fraud and corruption. Larijani was accused of depositing millions of dollars worth of public judiciary funds in his 63 personal accounts, while his daughter was accused of espionage, his brother Mohammad-Javad of illegal land-grabbing, and another brother, Fazel, of bribery.

Raisi’s unstained fame when it comes to fraud and corruption, especially during his 10-year term as the chairman of the General Inspection Office, is a major asset. His sloganeering in the 2017 presidential elections focused on countering corruption, an issue that can improve his public image and give him a competitive edge over his rivals, the most important being Larijani, his predecessor; Rouhani, the current president; Mujtaba Khamenei, the son of the current supreme leader; and Hassan Khomeini, grandchild of the late supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

The new chief justice will have an opportunity to further boost his popularity and thus his chances of succession through the public prosecution of members of the Larijani family, who have become symbols of state corruption, nepotism, and cronyism in recent years and are hated equally across the political spectrum.

Raisi won the hearts of conservatives in the last presidential elections. With the warm welcome he received from the reformists in his new post, he is becoming an uncontested superstar of Iranian politics and has the best chance to become the future supreme leader of Iran.