Thursday, 2nd July 2020

A mysterious death in Romania points to rivalry for top jobs in Iran

The battle for power and influence in Iran appeared to take a gruesome turn on 19 June, with the as-yet-unexplained death of fugitive judge Gholamreza Mansouri in a Bucharest hotel. Mansouri was being tried in absentia in Tehran as part of a wider, politically-inspired corruption clampdown. He had been speaking to the Iranian embassy in Bucharest in an effort to agree a return, but those negotiations broke down. Tehran put in an extradition request via Interpol instead, but before that process could be completed Mansouri was dead.

While the initial reports from the Romanian capital suggested the police were treating the death – caused by a fall down an internal atrium from an upper floor of the Duke Hotel – as a suicide, there has been a growing chorus of voices claiming something far more nefarious. Human rights lawyer Kaveh Moussavi says he has no doubt Mansouri was murdered. Moussavi works on the Ending Impunity project which helped secure the arrest of notorious public prosecutor Hamid Nouri in Sweden last November (GSN 1,092/6),

The fugitive judge had no shortage of enemies. A Romanian court was due to rule on the extradition request on 10 July, but there were also calls for him to be prosecuted for torture and human rights abuses in Romania and Germany, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. If he was tried in a European court, the entire Iranian judicial system would effectively have been on trial too – which some observers suspect was seen as too great a risk for someone in Tehran. There have been unverified rumours that another Iranian was in the hotel at the time of Mansouri’s death.

There appear to be links between Mansouri’s fate and the battle for influence in Tehran, where a presidential election is due to be held next year and where the need to find a successor to the substantially more powerful Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could come to the fore at any time.

Hard-line head of the judiciary (and defeated 2017 presidential candidate) Ebrahim Raeisi is said to be “desperate” to become the next rahbar and, within that context, is caught in a vicious battle for influence with the well-connected Larijani family. Their number includes recently retired Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who has been appointed as an adviser to Khamenei (GSN 1,104/6), Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser Mohammad-Javad Larijani and Raeisi’s predecessor as head of the judiciary, the recently appointed Expediency Council chairman Sadeq (Amoli) Larijani.

In July 2019, a few months after Raeisi took over the judiciary, Amoli Larijani’s one-time deputy Akbar Tabari was arrested and charged with corruption. Given the lack of independence in the Iranian judicial system, prosecutions such as these are seen to carry clear political overtones and suggest those involved were caught in the middle of a power struggle. The trial of Tabari, Mansouri and almost 20 others began in Tehran in early June. Mansouri had fled the Islamic Republic in August or September (accounts vary) – a path taken by several others on trial.

Raeisi has been seen as a protégé of Khamenei’s, which should help him in his quest for the top job. However, in recent days Khamenei has stepped in to offer significant support and protection to Amoli Larijani, reportedly describing him during a video conference with judiciary officials as “virtuous” and untainted by corruption. Khamenei has proved adept at keeping multiple power centres vying for his ear in his time in office and this may be another example of that – or it may be that any corruption investigation risked coming too close to his inner circle for comfort.

Just what sort of Islamic Republic the next supreme leader might inherit is open to question. Iran’s economic and political health are both in a fragile state, which requires very careful management. The rial’s value plummeted to around $1=IR200,000 during June, in a trend which is threatening to make the currency’s planned revaluation largely irrelevant (GSN 1,102/10).

GSN hears that attendance at some government offices has fallen even faster than the currency has plunged, and now stands at just 30%, as staff awaiting unpaid salaries opt to stay away. The government’s failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic – with the country firmly in the grip of a second wave (the death toll has exceeded 100 on most days since mid-June) – has further undermined trust in the regime. The public has in any case grown increasingly disillusioned due to episodes such as the November fuel price protests, when at least 1,500 people are thought to have been killed (GSN 1,093/13).

The record low turnout in February’s Majlis-e Shura elections offered an insight into how the majority of Iranians now feel about their leaders (GSN 1,099/16). The velayat-e faqih leadership model may have long ago lost its mass support. Even so, there are many who still covet the opportunity to sit atop the Islamic Republic.

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