Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Ahmad Marvi as new custodian of Astan Quds Razavi on March 30. The wealthy endowment manages the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad. Marvi will replace conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who ran for president in 2017. Raisi was named as the new head of the judiciary last month.
The shrine in Mashhad is a sacred place for Shiite Muslims, attracting millions of visitors from both inside and outside the country every year. Over the centuries, many believers have donated land and their inheritances to the endowment that manages the shrine, a practice that continues to this very day. As such, Astan Quds Razavi is affluent.
After the 1979 revolution, moderate Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi was appointed as the custodian of the shrine, a post he held until his death in 2016. Of note, Vaez Tabasi indicated backing for moderate President Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election. Under his custodianship, the shrine complex was expanded, and the endowment’s spectrum of activities broadened, extending to establishing enterprises. Astan Quds Razavi now owns a large number of major companies. In this vein, the media have criticized the endowment for reportedly not paying taxes, given the exemptions granted to religious endowments.
Since 1979, the shrine's custodianship has become a highly important and influential position in the Islamic Republic. In fact, it is now one of the most senior positions in the country, partly due to its spiritual nature, and also because of the endowment's wealth. This influence has led some observers to view the custodians as potential successors of Ayatollah Khamenei.
After Tabasi's death in 2016, hard-line cleric Raisi was named as shrine custodian. Considered as a potential candidate to replace Khamenei, Raisi ran in the 2017 presidential election, only to lose to Rouhani. During his campaign, Raisi was accused of exploiting Imam Reza's popularity and sanctity as well as the wealth of the shrine endowment — claims he rejected.
On March 7, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as chief justice, yet Raisi seemed reluctant to accept the position. Indeed, the appointment would put a stop to any presidential ambitions for now.
On April 4, the official website of the supreme leader published a March 20 decree that designated Marvi as shrine custodian. Even though he has held a high-ranking position within the Office of the Supreme Leader, Marvi has been unknown to most lay people and even journalists. Indeed, for more than two decades, he served as deputy for seminary affairs, acting as a bridge between the supreme leader and the Qom seminary and clerics, as well as the senior clerical leadership (maraji). According to the head of the Office of the Supreme Leader, Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, four individuals will be appointed to carry out Marvi’s duties as deputy for seminary affairs.
While he has been a significant figure at the Office of the Supreme Leader, Marvi has sought to keep a low profile and has distanced himself from the media. Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have trusted Marvi so much that he was also in charge of his office in Qom. This trust may be rooted in their longstanding relationship, which dates back to the years prior to the 1979 revolution, when both lived in Mashhad. Indeed, in a 2011 interview, Marvi said he had known Khamenei since he was young, and had attended his speeches and taken part in the sessions held in Khamenei's home in Mashhad. Marvi also stated that Ayatollah Khamenei was at the time in contact with his father and older brother and made visits to his home.
After the revolution, Marvi's brother — Hadi, who passed away in 2007 — became involved in judicial offices and courts, and was gradually promoted. Between 1999 and 2004, Hadi Marvi served as the first deputy of the chief justice. He has been described as moderate compared to his peers. Hadi Marvi was also the son-in-law of hard-liner Ayatollah Abolqassem Khazali, an influential figure in the Islamic Republic.
While he enjoyed a long friendship with Raisi, Marvi did not act in his favor in the 2017 presidential election. Given Marvi's lack of interest in public politics, it is probable that he will continue his strategy of keeping a low profile. This approach is likely to foster ties between the shrine endowment and the Rouhani administration.
Of note, in his April 6 congratulatory message, Rouhani praised Marvi's "honesty" and "commitment." Moreover, Reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri telephoned Marvi, declaring the government’s willingness for "broad cooperation" in the social, cultural and economic arenas. Since the custodian of Astan Quds Raza wields extensive power in Mashhad, warm ties between the Rouhani administration and Marvi could help resolve some of the differences and disagreements between the authorities in Tehran and Mashhad, including a lifting of the ban on holding concerts in Mashhad. Having said this, it should be borne in mind that Marvi has served as a member of the Office of the Supreme Leader and that he should not be expected to go too far in pursuit of his moderate approach and opt for wholesale change.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hard-line Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, is seen as a major obstacle to improved ties between Astan Quds Razavi and the Rouhani administration. Alamolhoda, the father-in-law of Raisi, has adopted harsh stances against moderates and Reformists. In recent years, namely after the appointment of Raisi as shrine custodian in 2016, Alamolhoda has interfered in issues beyond what some critics view as the confines of his main duties, including his insistence on banning concerts in Mashhad. Such interference and his amassing of power in recent years have resulted in a number of parliamentarians and analysts referring to Mashhad as an "autonomous" city. Alamolhoda was apparently among the candidates considered to be successors of Raisi. If true, this may be perhaps why the head of the Office of the Supreme Leader appeared to seek to appease him on the first official day of Marvi's custodianship, saying, Alamolhoda "is the loudspeaker of the Party of God in Khorasan [Razavi province] … and his appropriate endeavors … have satisfied the leader.”
To turn Mashhad into a “normal” Iranian city, Marvi thus appears to have an obstacle in his path. One can only wait and see whether he will seek to curb Alamolhoda’s power, and what will unfold between the shrine endowment and the Rouhani administration in the months ahead.