A number of things set Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei apart from his predecessors as chief justice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including having already served as the prosecutor at the Special Clerical Court and been accused of financial corruption even before his appointment was made public. He also competes with his immediate predecessor, president-elect Ebrahim Raisi, for the title of chief justice with the weakest seminary education.
In the first decade after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on July 1 of this year, held down various positions in the Ministry of Intelligence and the judiciary.
He was the examining magistrate and assistant prosecutor in a string of high-profile security cases, including that of the bomb attack on the offices of Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar in August 1981, which killed Bahonar, President Mohammad Ali Rajaie and six other officials, and that of Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s son-in-law and a senior official of the Revolutionary Guards, who was executed for murder and “sedition”.
Ejei’s background differs from that of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s president-elect and outgoing judiciary chief, in some crucial respects. More than any of his predecessors, he has formally served as a judge in numerous major cases.
However, Ejei and Raisi are united by their lack of an advanced seminary education. Customarily, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and for a time Khamenei, a mujtahid – a religious authority or “source of emulation” considered qualified to issue fatwas and edicts – was appointed as the chief justice. What they lacked in terms of a judicial record, they made up for with political clout and a good standing in the Shia seminaries.
This changed with Raisi’s appointment. Of all chief justices since the Islamic Revolution, Raisi had the lowest level of seminary education. But he had been part of the judiciary from the beginning.
Mohseni Ejei has a not-dissimilar background. He studied for six years at seminaries in Isfahan and Qom, and has only completed the portion known as “basics” and the preliminary parts of the next course, “levels”. Like Raisi, the government still considers Ejei to be a mujtahid, but in his case the title is political and would not be considered valid by the traditional seminary hierarchy.
Mohseni Ejei is also a member of the radical Shia Haghani school of thought, like Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under whom Ejei served as intelligence minister. Students of this seminary have previously held important positions in Iran’s judiciary and security agencies but, up to now, none have been appointed head of this branch of power.
Accused of Corruption Before his Appointment
All of Iran’s chief justices under Khamenei have been accused of corruption sooner or later. But Ejei is the first to have such charges levelled at him before taking office.
He has been accused of letting Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the chairman of Bank Melli, who was involved in the $2.8 billion corruption case of Amir Mansour Aria, walk free and escape from Iran. The names of his son and his brother have also been brought up in connection with a number of financial crimes. To complicate matters, Ejei was the judge in some of the biggest corruption cases in Iran, including that of the Afrashtehpour brothers and the billion-dollar Bank Saderat scandal.
The timing of Ejei’s appointment is also interesting. The question of who might succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader was raised when Raisi was first appointed chief justice, and the speculation has now reached fever pitch.. If Khamenei dies, both Ejei as chief justice and Raisi as president are members of a council that, according to Article 111 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, would carry out the duties of the Supreme Leader until his successor was elected. This council consists of these two officials and a faqih from the Guardian Council, selected by the Expediency Council.
On June 16, Mohsen Kadivar, a prominent scholar of religion and the Islamic Republic’s clerical caste, predicted that either Alireza Arafi, Qom’s Friday prayer leader, Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader, or the senior cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Modarresi-Yazdi would be chosen by Guardian Council for the membership of the leadership council when the time comes. “The next Supreme Leader,” he wrote, “is going to be one of these four: Raisi, one of the two faqihs of the Guardian Council or [Khamenei’s son] Mojtaba Khamenei.”
After Ejei’s appointment, he wrote: “The identity of the third Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic is still not clear. Even though it appears that Raisi’s chances have improved, one cannot discount the possibility that Raisi might play the ‘fixer’ for Mojtaba Khamenei. We still need more evidence.”
There are others who believe that Raisi will indeed prepare the ground for Mojtaba Khamenei’s leadership, and withdraw himself. “The conditions are not receptive to his leadership,” political activist Taghi Rahmani said in an IranWire Clubhouse chat room in late June. “Mr. Raisi is like a technician in a transition period.”
A Move to Foil Raisi?
This view is shared by those who believe that Ejei’s appointment was meant to control Raisi and prevent possible fights over the next Supreme Leader. If so, Ejei would be the best person to stand against the top officials of Raisi’s administration if things go wrong – as they did under President Ahmadinejad, when tensions between the president and Ayatollah Khamenei became intolerable and eventually Ahmadinejad rebelled.
For the same reason, some supporters of Ebrahim Raisi have opposed Ejei’s appointment on social media. With Raisi as the head of the judiciary, some have posited, Ejei was sidelined and Raisi would have preferred Ahmad Mortazavi Moghadam, the current head of Iran’s Supreme Court, as his successor.
The November 2019 protests is another factor that makes Ejei’s appointment different. He is the only chief justice to have previously served as intelligence minister, so it is likely that he will regard future protests as a security issue.
Unlike other chief justices, he and Raisi both served prosecutors at the Special Clerical Court. But compared to Raisi, Ejei covered more high-profile cases, such as the trial of the reformist Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, the managing editor of the daily Salam, and the clerics Abdollah Nouri and Mohsen Kadivar, who were defrocked and jailed.
With him as prosecutor, the Special Clerical Court sentenced the cleric Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari to death – later reduced to seven years in prison on appeal. “Later, “ Eshkevari wrote of Ejei’s appointment, “perhaps two years later, I learned that during my early months in prison, while they were interrogating me, and then during my trial in 2000, Ejei tried hard to have some religious authorities issue a fatwa that I was a heretic so he could have me executed. But he failed; nobody, not even Mr. Khamenei, agreed with Ejei.”