TEHRAN BLOG: Iran's new chief justice sends shivers through Iranian expatriate community

TEHRAN BLOG: Iran's new chief justice sends shivers through Iranian expatriate community
Iranian expats will think twice as to whether a trip to Iran is worth the risk following comments made by the country's new chief justice. / CC: BORNA
By bne IntelIiNews August 11, 2021

In his first televised press conference, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i, Iran’s new head of the judiciary, struck a discouraging tone for Iranian expatriates and exiled citizens. The chief justice said there was no guarantee that such people would be allowed to leave the country were they to return to deal with personal legal matters, IRIB reported on August 9.

The somewhat astonishing message from the new judiciary head, who took over from Ebrahim Raisi after the hardline cleric in June won the presidential election in which top moderates were barred from running, comes soon after the Raisi administration said it was looking at ways to attract overseas Iranians' money into the country, including with the creation of a new organisation based abroad that would serve as a facilitator. bne IntelliNews learned of the efforts in an exclusive conversation with people close to Raisi’s presidential transition team.

Foot-in-mouth disease

The remarks by the top judge appear to send all the wrong signals, Eje’i’s words coming out as entirely garbled and damaging to any effort the Raisi team has put in so far in trying to win support from Iranians based abroad.

"In some cases it's definitely better to return. Even if it means their [court] case will proceed. Even if it leads to their conviction. There are some whose assets in Iran are not properly taken care of. People benefitting from that scare them, saying that if you return this and that happens. No, it's a financial issue,” Eje’i said.

He added: “If there's a problem, they can come, they'll be questioned and investigated, and their problem will be resolved."

Eje’i, who is closely connected with Raisi, is unlikely to get slapped on the wrist for the comments, made on August 9. However, his glib language may damage hopes of attracting much-needed capital to prop up Iranian businesses, both public and private, cut off from the global financial system because of the longstanding US sanctions.

The judiciary is often unofficially acknowledged as simply servicing the whims of the supreme leader’s office. Its actions and words helped to strangle potential investment during the eight-year tenure of the previous president, the moderate and pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. Several dozen high-profile arrests, including those of officials and family close to the previous administration, were reported during Rouhani’s years.

In several cases, the arrests appeared to be entirely arbitrary and were part of a wider inter-factional war going on behind the scenes in Tehran. The Rouhani administration, often seen by hardliners as soft on the West, had several investment opportunities stopped, including foreign investment to be made by blue-chip European companies looking to take advantage of the nuclear deal that took effect in 2016 (prior to it losing its legs in May 2018 when Donald Trump flounced out of the accord).

Raisi’s big expat push

bne IntelliNews learned prior to Raisi’s inauguration that the transition team will be aiming to open the doors to expatriate Iranians with incentives and new hubs across the world that would provide intermediaries, including in cities like London and Berlin.

These organisations are to be seen as separate from diplomatic missions and not strictly affiliated with the government in Iran, while they acted as bridges for closing funding gaps.  

There are some several million Iranians who have emigrated from the country of 83mn. Over the past 42 years, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, millions of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have been born to those who fled or emigrated. Very many have been awarded Iranian birth certificates and passports via Iranian consulates abroad.

The Rouhani administration attempted a similar push to attract expatriate wealth to Iran, with a better success rate, particularly in terms of FDI and new enterprises during the early days of the newly minted nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)].

However, the JCPOA gold rush was abruptly cut off with the election of Trump as US president in November 2016. Trump made it his mission to end any sanctions relief provided to Tehran by the former Obama administration.

There have been several high-profile cases in recent years of Iranians who returned to the country but met an unfortunate fate. The cases include those of second-generation Iranians who became ensnared in competing elements of the security apparatus of Iran. The plight of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is a case in point.

Those currently detained in Iran include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British dual national who was pulled from the passport queue at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport and accused of working with the BBC and teaching journalism illegally.   

Her husband Richard Ratcliffe has now appealed to the United Nations to intervene in her case. She is seen as a pawn that Iran is using in its various disputes and negotiations with the UK and other Western powers.

Nazanin was handed a further one-year sentence in April, having already served five years on charges of plotting to topple the Iranian government, something she has always denied.

In recent years, the Iranian authorities have jailed dozens of dual nationals, including journalists, academics and human rights defenders.