Former Iranian chief justice rises to senior Shi’ite rank, eligible to be next leader

By Paul Taylor
September 24, 2010

ayatollah 1The former head of Iran’s judiciary has attained a senior Shi’ite clerical rank, joining a handful of men eligible to become supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, according to Iranian websites.

The Kalame opposition website said Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who ran the justice system from 1999 to 2009, had become a marja-e taqlid (source of emulation), meaning that people may choose him as their personal spiritual guide.

(Photo: Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi in Tehran, January 11, 2005/Raheb Homavandi)

“Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi announced himself as a source of emulation on Tuesday. He issued his resaleh (thesis interpreting Islamic law),” the website of opposition presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi said on Thursday.

Despite widespread criticism of the treatment of political dissidents and offenders against Iran’s strict morality code, Shahroudi is seen by some as a moderate conservative who imposed a moratorium on the execution of adulterers by stoning and on public hangings.

He withdrew from politics and moved to the holy city of Qom to resume his theological studies after hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last year.

Shahroudi’s public re-emergence with an enhanced religious status comes at a time when Iran is under international pressure not to carry out a stoning sentence against a woman accused of adultery and plotting to have her husband murdered.

Amid fierce political in-fighting among rival factions in the conservative Islamic establishment, it may also raise questions about the succession to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who outranks the president.

“Shahroudi is part of the establishment and yet he is recognised by the clergy at large as someone who has attained the status of mojtahed (an Islamic legal scholar) and could be a source of emulation,” said Baqer Moin, biographer of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.

ayatollah 2The Iraqi-born cleric remains loyal to Khamenei but has good relations with reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami and veteran power broker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president who heads two key state bodies.

(Photo: Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi speaks in front of pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L), the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (C) and Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi in Tehran, 20  Feb 2007/Raheb Homavandi)

Under the constitution adopted after the 1979 Islamic revolution, the supreme leader must be chosen from among the top religious legal scholars, of whom there are about 20 at any time.

That rule led to controversy when Khamenei was chosen to succeed Khomeini upon his death in 1989, since the new leader’s status as a marja was not widely recognised.

Shahroudi was born in 1948 in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf in Iraq and was briefly a leader of the exiled Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in opposition to former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Some Iranian hardliners contended that his Iraqi origin made him unsuitable to head the judiciary. However, it gives him a support base in both major Shi’ite centres — Najaf and Qom.

Moin said top Shi’ite clerics could be broadly divided into three groups — a majority of quietists who have moral authority but stay out of active politics; conservatives, who espouse strict enforcement of Islamic law, and some of whom contend that Islamic rule is above democracy; and reformists who favour a more pluralistic, liberal application of Islamic law.

ayatollah 3Khamenei, 71, who has increasingly sided with the hardliners and backed Ahmadinejad, carries out an active schedule of public duties, speaking at prayers and to groups of visitors and receiving government officials and Muslim dignitaries.

(Photo: Ayatollah Shahroudi with Iran’s then  President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran July 19, 2005/Morteza Nikoubazl)

However, there has been periodic speculation about his health. Some reformists called for the clerical Assembly of Experts, which has the power to revoke the leader, to review Khamenei’s conduct after he backed the re-election of Ahmadinejad and a crackdown on opposition protesters last year.

At the time, hardline vigilantes attacked the offices of moderate marjas such as Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheyb in Shiraz and Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in Qom, placing them under virtual house arrest.

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