(CNSNews.com) – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has appointed to a key post in the Islamic establishment a hardline cleric sanctioned by the U.S. for human rights abuses and accused by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of financial corruption.
Sadeq Amoli Larijani, who has served as the regime’s powerful judiciary chief for the past decade, has now been named chairman of the Expediency Council, a top consultative body.
The move has stoked speculation that Khamenei, 79, may be lining up Larijani, who is 22 years younger, as Iran’s next supreme leader. Khamenei was himself chair of the Expediency Council for 14 months before becoming supreme leader on the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
Larijani succeeds Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who died on Christmas Eve after a lengthy illness.
His elevation to the important position comes at a time of growing tensions with Washington, as the Trump administration ratchets up sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal last May, and steps up criticism of the regime’s missile activity, terror plots in Europe and destabilizing behavior in the region.
The Expediency Council holds a pivotal position in the fundamentalist regime. Its members are appointed by and advise the supreme leader. It also mediates in any disagreements between parliament and the Council of Guardians – a religious-judicial body that interprets the constitution and oversees elections, and whose members are also appointed by the supreme leader.
Iran-watchers endlessly debate the relative fortunes of conservative hardliners and purported reformist moderates, and Khamenei’s pick of Larijani suggests a win for the former camp.
When Iranians started taking to the streets a little over a year ago, initially protesting economic hardship and high food prices but also highlighting state corruption, mismanagement and repression, Larijani ordered the judiciary to take a tough line, leading to thousands of arrests.
Two weeks after the protests erupted, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on 14 officials and entities, with Larijani heading the list.
It accused him of being “responsible for or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the commission of serious human rights abuses against persons in Iran or Iranian citizens or residents.”
Larijani, the department said, also had “oversight over the carrying out of sentences in contravention of Iran’s international obligations, including the execution of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”
In a speech to judiciary officials ten days later, Larijani accused the U.S. government of spending millions of dollars to incite the unrest and create “chaos and insecurity.”
He ordered that those instigating the protests, “especially those linked to foreigners,” should be severely punished.
Later in the year, as protests continued and the prospect of the return of U.S. sanctions took its toll on the Iranian currency, Larijani’s spokesman announced the arrest of more than two dozen people accused of economic crimes, saying many would be charged with “spreading corruption on earth,” an offense that carries the death penalty.
In a speech last July, Pompeo named Larijani among a group of senior Iranian officials and clerics whom he accused of corruption.
He said the judiciary chief was “worth at least $300 million” and had obtained his wealth by “embezzling public funds into his own bank account.”
Meanwhile, Iranian reports indicate that Larijani’s place at the helm of the judiciary may be taken by another hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, who served as Iran’s prosecutor general until 2016 and was a runner-up to Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election. He currently heads one of the regime’s most important endowments, a post also appointed by the supreme leader.
Raisi is another deeply controversial figure, accused of being a member of a “death panel” that oversaw the mass execution of imprisoned dissidents in 1988, in line with a decree by Khomeini. By some accounts tens of thousands of dissidents were executed.
His name, too, has come up as a possible successor to Khamenei.