Hardliners Consolidate in Tehran, Face International Pushback in Bid to Evade Sanctions

While Ayatollah Khamenei consolidates control of the Iranian judiciary for the hardline camp and President Rouhani visits Iraq, Israel and the UN expose Iranian maritime efforts to evade oil sanctions and cooperation with North Korean arms manufacturers.

HARDLINER TIED TO MASS EXECUTIONS APPOINTED TO HEAD JUDICIARY

On March 6, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appointed a hard-line cleric, Hojatelislam Ebrahim Raisi, associated with mass executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s, to head Iran’s judiciary. The move drew condemnations abroad: U.S. Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino called it a “disgrace … The regime makes a mockery of the legal process by allowing unfair trials and inhumane prison conditions.”

Raisi’s star has been rising since at least 2016, when Khamenei appointed him to head the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, which manages the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad. Raisi’s second major promotion in three years has prompted speculation that Khamenei may be grooming the 57-year-old hardline cleric as a potential heir apparent.

ROUHANI VISIT AIMING TO TIGHTEN TEHRAN’S HOLD ON BAGHDAD

On March 10, President Rouhani arrived in Baghdad for a three-day visit, apparently aiming to expand economic ties. Rouhani’s agenda reportedly includes plans to extend a railroad from Kermanshah, Iran to Basra in Iraq, as well as new visa rules to facilitate Iranian business travel to Iraq. The visit is widely seen as part of a broader Iranian strategy to evade U.S. sanctions. As one Iranian official put it, "Iraq is another channel for Iran to bypass America's unjust sanctions imposed on Iran. This trip will provide opportunities for Iran's economy.”

Some observers also view the visit as an attempt by Rouhani to recover lost standing within Iran, following calls for his ouster after the U.S. reimposed sanctions last year.

SANCTIONS EVASION DRAWS IRE OF ISRAEL, UN

Also on March 6, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued an unusual challenge on Twitter, suggesting that the Israeli navy might play a role in thwarting Iranian attempts to smuggle oil in evasion of US sanctions: “Iran is trying to circumvent the sanctions through covert oil smuggling over maritime routes, and to the extent that these attempts widen, the navy will have a more important role in blocking these Iranian actions.” He also urged Western powers to intensify their efforts to combat Iranian clandestine activity: “I call on the entire international community to stop Iran’s attempts to circumvent the sanctions by sea, and of course, by any [other] means.”

Nearly a week later, the UN reported that it was investigating two North Korean missile and arms companies suspected of illicitly operating in Iran in violation of international sanctions. The UN report noted that the Presidents of KOMID, which exports ballistic missile equipment, and Green Pine, which sells conventional arms, recently traveled to Iran. According to Hugh Griffiths, coordinator of the UN panel assessing sanctions on North Korea,  both are “extremely active in Iran” and engaged in cash couriering for suspected illicit activities.