Who Is Iran’s New First Deputy Chief Justice?
On Tuesday, Iran’s judiciary announced that a cleric, Mohammad Mossadegh Kahnemoui had been named first deputy chief justice. The appointment comes as the new chief justice, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, seeks to make his own mark in the senior ranks of the judiciary following Ebrahim Raisi becoming Iran’s president-elect.
The position of first deputy chief justice in the Islamic Republic matters. The role has been filled by significant players within the Iranian establishment and has often served as a steppingstone to senior positions in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy.
Who is Mohammad Mossadegh Kahnemoui?
A cleric by training, Mossadegh Kahnemoui has risen through the ranks of Iran’s judiciary. He has served as a deputy of the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces; first deputy attorney general; deputy chief justice for legal affairs; deputy prosecutor of the Special Court for Clergy, and a stint as head of the judiciary’s Administrative Court of Justice. Mossadegh Kahnemoui played a role in running interference for the Islamic Republic after an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. In August 2010, he told the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that “her case is still being processed and nothing is yet decided,” and stressed that she had been found guilty of both adultery and murder, despite Mohammadi Ashtiani accusing authorities of concocting the murder conviction solely to deflect international outrage. Mohammadi Ashtiani was eventually released from prison after her sentence was reduced from stoning to a term in jail.
More recently, Mossadegh Kahnemoui took part in the establishment of a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers, which has been widely seen as limiting the independence of lawyers within the Islamic Republic. Despite being named as first deputy chief justice under Mohseni-Ejei’s chief justiceship, Mossadegh Kahnemoui notably served as a Raisi protégé as he ascended through the ranks of the judicial system. For example, Mossadegh Kahnemoui was named as a deputy chief justice for legal affairs when Raisi became chief justice in 2019. Additionally, Mossadegh Kahnemoui has worked closely with Raisi in another forum—the Special Court for Clergy with Raisi as prosecutor-general and Mossadegh Kahnemoui as his deputy. Indeed, at the time of Raisi’s elevation as chief justice, Iranian media speculated even higher positions for him—including serving as an attorney general—given his perceived closeness with Raisi.
Such a dynamic is noteworthy because of the history of tension between Mohseni-Ejei and Raisi. When Raisi became chief justice, he inherited Mohseni-Ejei as his first deputy from Sadegh Larijani. But Mohseni-Ejei is starting off his tenure as head of the judiciary with Mossadegh Kahnemoui as his new deputy. Given past friction, Mossadegh Kahnemoui’s long history with Raisi and how this impacts his relationship with Mohseni-Ejei will be important to monitor.
Why is the first deputy chief justice important?
Apart from the power that the position wields within the judicial system, the two previous first deputy chief justices—Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei—went on to serve as attorney general and chief justice, respectively. Given this trajectory, Mossadegh Kahnemoui may be considered a contender to eventually replace Mohseni-Ejei as chief justice or even Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as attorney general. With Raisi becoming president-elect and being seen as a rising candidate to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader, Mossadegh Kahnemoui will also be well-placed to advance given his relationship with Raisi. But there is no guarantee. Previous first deputy chief justices—like Mohammad Hadi-Marvi—faded from the scene after their tenures.
In the end, the senior ranks of Iran’s judiciary are undergoing a reshuffling. Since 2004, Raisi and later Mohseni-Ejei have dominated this club. At around 59 years of age, Mossadegh Kahnemoui is entering this inner sanctum of judicial power.