Those supporting rigid principles of the Islamic revolution, e. g. Iranian conservatives, are gaining strength again. March 8 saw Hujjat al-Islam Ebrahim Raisi assuming the position of Chief Justice of Iran. In fact, he became head of the country's judicial branch. The clergyman received his appointment from supreme and spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Raisi is a well-known figure in the country. In the presidential elections of 2017, he won 16 million votes, having given the newly elected and moderate Hassan Rouhani a run for his money. The latter received 23.5 million votes.
Shortly before the election, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as custodian of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad, the largest and most revered Shiite shrine in Iran, which, among other things, produces significant returns on the pilgrimage. Having obtained the appointment, Hujjat al-Islam turned into one of the most powerful figures in his country.
At the same time, Raisi became head of the Islamic Republic's richest religious Astan Quds Razavi foundation, which receives funds from the pilgrimage. As noted by media outlets back in those days, the clergyman got huge amounts of money at his disposal, which he could use to form his own network of supporters and voters.
It is certainly not by chance that the spiritual leader decided to appoint Raisi as Chief Justice. Hujjat al-Islam has a great experience in the field of legal studies, law and employment with legal agencies. His career began very successfully soon after the Islamic Revolution. At the age of 20-something years he was appointed Attorney General of Karaj, a small city west of Tehran. He was the capital's prosecutor, the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General of Iran. And for all that, the current eminence of Raisi seems very symptomatic.
It should be noted that before Hujjat al-Islam, a right conservative, became Chairman of the Supreme Court, this post was occupied by Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a supporter of the Iranian establishment's more moderate conservative wing.
Sadeq Larijani held the post for a maximum of ten years. Now Khamenei let him chair the Expediency Discernment Council. The Council is assigned to a modest role of an advisory body to the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran who should also resolve disputes between the Majles (the Iranian Parliament) and the Supervisory Board that endorses laws passed by the Parliament.
Larijani is a representative of one of the most influential clans in present-day Iran. His brother Ali Larijani has been Speaker of the Parliament of Iran for almost eleven years, also adheres to centrist views and has managed to establish constructive relations with the government of Hassan Rouhani.
Being a very powerful person, Raisi at the same time enjoys great support of the Islamic Republic's most conservative religious circles. Thus, in the presidential election he was explicitly supported by the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, also known as Endurance Front, led by the odious Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. He is renowned for his ultraconservative views, is adamantly opposed to interaction with the West and believes that the isolationist model of North Korea is a perfect match for Iran.
Yazdi and his Endurance Front have played a significant role in the recent scandal with the failed resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the central figure in the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and the conclusion of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After the nuclear deal was signed, the people welcomed the head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry as a hero and fastened all their hopes on him to expand Iran's cooperation with the international community and to improve the economic situation in the country.
After the United States' May 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of new sanctions, as well as due to Europe's heel-dragging as regards introducing a system to provide financial mechanisms bypassing US bans, many people in Iran began talking about the failure of the nuclear agreement. Instead of the economic dividends promised by the government, the deal entailed a weakened economy.
Conservatives were quick to take advantage of the situation. Last year, Ayatollah Yazdi in one of his speeches called the nuclear deal a huge mistake, accused the government of being too optimistic about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Europeans, as well as of having "negotiations with the enemy." Moreover, he urged the Iranians not to trust any foreign power, either Western or Eastern. "Some have given their hearts to Russia and China, and they are also making a mistake", Yazdi said.
A real hate campaign has begun against the Rouhani government in general and Zarif in particular. Over the last several months, Majles deputies closely associated with the Endurance Front even introduced bills calling for the impeachment of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, President Hassan Rouhani, and Parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Then supreme and spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threw his weight behind the government, saying that the resignation of Rouhani's Cabinet would play into the hands of the enemy.
On February 25, Zarif submitted resignation. According to some media reports, the final nail in the coffin of his patience was allegedly the fact that the ruling establishment invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran without informing the President and the Foreign Ministry about this visit and having justified the action by privacy and safety considerations. As a result, a number of senior Foreign Ministry officials and diplomats were ready to follow Zarif and leave their posts.
The minister's resignation sparked scenes of jubilation in the conservative camp. "The shameful JCPOA came to a standstill. Zarif resembles a gambler who put his whole being at stake when placing confidence in John Kerry (former US Secretary of State), and lost," said former conservative Majles deputy Hamid Reza.
It has to be said that most MPs shouted support for the Foreign Minister. Some160 Majles deputies signed a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, in which they expressed the desire that Mohammed Javad Zarif proceed with his duties as Foreign Minister. And deputy Ali Asgar Yusefnezhad said that "the resignation of a folk hero would once again revive the memory of the murders of prominent people and eradicating the real children of the revolution by removing them from the political arena," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying.
President Rouhani did not accept Zarif's resignation. " I believe your resignation is against the country's interests and do not approve it," he wrote in his response to the Minister.
Zarif got back to performing his duties with support of both a number of Iran's ruling elite representatives and, most importantly, from Ayatollah Khamenei. The spiritual leader called Zarif "trustworthy, brave, courageous, and pious," pointing to the Foreign Minister's place in the forefront of resistance against America’s all-out pressure.
It is noteworthy that Zarif was explicitly supported by General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the elite military unit Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The corps is traditionally considered to be a conservative sphere of influence. But not this time. Soleimani gained glory as a true hero of combating terrorism; his officers and experts were invited by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help the Syrian army in the fight against terrorist groups.
And Zarif is Iran's central figure in the Astana process on a peaceful political settlement in Syria. For Iranians, the Zarif-Soleimani alliance is strongly associated with the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East. And the general most likely realizes that together they are a real force to be reckoned with. Of course, the commendation of General Soleimani has weakened the spirit of Iranian hardliners and strengthened Zarif's position.
However, as revealed by the Foreign Minister's resignation saga, uncompromising ideologists teamed up around the Endurance Front will not miss the opportunity to bring their adherents to power. And the elections are in the offing: parliamentary in 2020 and presidential in 2021.
Repudiating the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and imposing new sanctions, Washington expected the deterioration of the economic situation to trigger a tidal wave, which in turn would lead to a regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many analysts have warned Washington strategists that their expectations would not materialize, and the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would cause an enhancement of Iran's ultraconservative forces. The most unfavorable forecasts are coming true. America's withdrawal from the deal gave the Iranian right-wingers an opportunity to score some points for their own benefit.