An Unjust Appointment

Saeed Rahnema on Iranian President Rouhani's choice for Minister of Justice.
By: /
August 28, 2013

Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

In the closing screens of the movie A Fish Called Wanda, the character Otto West, a repulsive American criminal, migrates to apartheid-era South Africa where he becomes the Minister of Justice. There is a disturbing echo of this Hollywood comedy in the real-life political tragedy of today's Iran, where an individual formerly involved in crimes against humanity, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, has been named Minister of Justice by the new President, Hassan Rouhani. Otto West's character was a stupid short-tempered hitman who claimed to have killed for the CIA. Pourmohammadi is a hardcore zealot cleric responsible for numerous real killings and assassinations.

In 1988, when the Iran-Iraq war finally came to an end, leaving Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream of taking Baghdad on the march to Jerusalem unfulfilled, he issued a fatwa commanding that all unrepentant political prisoners be executed, and called on his followers to “...annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately”. Khomeini then put together a three-man committee that came to be known as the “death committee.” Pourmohammadi was one of the three men.

As documented by many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, in about two months during the summer of 1988 over 4,000 political prisoners were executed and buried in unmarked graves. In 2012, the Iran Tribunal in the Hague condemned the Islamic Republic of Iran for crimes against humanity, and in 2013 the Canadian Parliament ratified a bill condemning these mass executions in Iran as crime against humanity.

Pourmohammadi also served as Deputy Intelligence Minister.  His responsibilities included overseas operations and during his tenure many Iranian dissidents were assassinated outside Iran. He has also been accused of being involved in the “chain killings” of Iranian intellectuals inside Iran. He became Minister of Interior in the first Ahmadinejad administration but was fired by him and later exposed for having participated in embezzlement and fraud.

Presumably, Pourmohammadi’s appointment as Minister of Justice was part of the deal with the Supreme Leader and the Principlist-dominated parliament. Rouhani was not the establishment’s top choice for the presidency, although he is a Principlist conservative himself, but he won because Iranian voters strategically voted for a lesser evil, as they have in the past. The Supreme Leader could have prevented his victory and declared his preferred candidate as a winner as he did for the second presidency of Ahmadinejad in 2009 but he did not, partly because of the high costs he had paid in 2009 leading to the voters riots, and also because of the severe political and economic crises that have engulfed Iran as a result of sanctions and mismanagement. But most importantly, he was not worried about Rouhani and was sure that he could make a deal with him.

The appointment of a notorious character like Pourmohammadi is no doubt embarrassing for Rouhani, particularly on the 25th anniversary of the massacre of political prisoners. The move has been condemned by all international human rights organizations. But the strong endorsement of his appointment by the conservative parliament and the rejection of the so-called “reformist” candidates are meant to send a message that the Principlists may have lost the presidential election, but they remain in control of the system in its totality.

Rouhani has an enormous task ahead of him. On the domestic front, he must tackle the economic mess created by eight years of Ahmadinejad, including dealing with rampant inflation and increasing unemployment. Internationally, he must find a way of removing crippling sanctions and easing tensions with the United States. His call for moderation raised the expectations of Iranians and the international community. Iranian civil society holds few illusions about the regime. They will keep looking for space to survive and room to grow, but whether such space will be opened by the Rouhani administration remains to be seen.