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Will Iran’s ‘Kennedys’ Challenge Ahmadinejad?

7 minute read
Robin Wright

The swearing-in of a new chief judge normally receives scant attention in Iran. But the political intrigue spreading throughout the theocracy turned the Aug. 17 ceremony for Sadegh Larijani into a happening dissected across the country and around the world. There was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, flanked on one side by the new chief judge and on the other by Sadegh’s elder brother Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament. With two of the three government branches now under their control, the Brothers Larijani have become a counterweight to Iran’s eccentric President–with the full endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.

Often referred to as Iran’s equivalent of the Kennedy clan, the five Larijani brothers–all bearded, sandy-haired and bespectacled–have spent the past three decades consolidating their power. They’ve run for the presidency, won Cabinet posts, served on the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts, directed state broadcasting, headed the Supreme National Security Council and served as deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Now the Supreme Leader is tapping into their experience and loyalty to prop up the troubled regime, as the focus of public disgruntlement shifts from the disputed June 12 presidential election to Khamenei’s powers. “The Supreme Leader is looking for people to support him. He is also looking for balance to Ahmadinejad,” says Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian reform cleric. “There are now two different currents among conservatives: one, Ahmadinejad and the Basij [paramilitary zealots], and the second, like the Larijanis, who are more rational and pragmatic.”

After 10 weeks of unrest, criticism of the regime is growing. Dozens of clerics have issued an unsigned 11-page letter, posted on several websites, calling Khamenei a dictator and demanding his dismissal. A group of ex-lawmakers publicly blamed Khamenei for the postelection turmoil and demanded a public probe by the Assembly of Experts that selected him. And public fury is growing over the alleged rape of detainees as well as the show-trial purges of opposition figures, many of whom once ran Iran’s government.

The Larijanis’ rise reflects the narrowing of power in Iran. Although the 1979 revolution shed 2,500 years of monarchy, Iranian politics is still often family based. During the reform era of President Mohammed Khatami, his brother Reza was deputy speaker of parliament. His Culture Minister was married to a member of parliament. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh was a member of parliament, and his brother was head of the state-controlled radio and television (he was succeeded by a Larijani).

But no family has held as many positions in so many branches of Iran’s labyrinthine government as the Larijanis. Mohammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated mathematician and the eldest, has been a member of parliament, a Deputy Foreign Minister and an adviser to the Supreme Leader; Bagher Larijani, a physician, has served as Deputy Minister of Health; and Fazel Larijani, a diplomat, spent years posted in Ottawa.

Ironically, the Larijani family patriarch was hardly a politico. The late Grand Ayatullah Mirza Hashem Amoli spent decades in Iraq, where some of his sons were born, and was a “quietist” who took the traditional Shi’ite view that religion and politics should not mix.

The brothers’ politics varies. “Javad is more forward-leaning and entrepreneurial in his politics. Ali is the most ambitious, and Sadegh is the craziest,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department analyst now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center. Mohammad Javad was burned politically by published reports about his meeting with a British diplomat in the late 1990s to defuse Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa condemning The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie to death. Educated at the University of California, Mohammad Javad has also expressed a relatively moderate position on relations with the U.S. “We should regard our relations with America realistically and without extremism and weigh them with the criteria of our national interests,” he said a decade ago. Sadegh, meanwhile, served on the 12-member Council of Guardians, the powerful body that vets legislation, political candidates and election results. Now, as chief judge, he is expected to oversee the judicial crackdown and trials of opposition figures.

Realists vs. Hard-Liners

The Larijanis reflect a nuanced but significant difference from the hard-line “principle-ist” politics of Ahmadinejad. “Ten years ago, the Larijanis would have been considered arch hard-liners,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the spectrum has moved so far right in recent years that now, compared with Ahmadinejad, they appear somewhat moderate.”

The differences are both political and personal. Ali Larijani ran for President against Ahmadinejad in 2005; he came in sixth, with less than 6% of the vote. Khamenei then appointed him head of the National Security Council, a body that reports to the Supreme Leader rather than to the President, who has just one seat on the council. As the lead negotiator on Iran’s disputed nuclear program, he took a tough line on the country’s right to enrich uranium as part of its energy policy but showed openness to a deal that would prevent the country’s further isolation, according to diplomats involved in the talks. That put him at odds with Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric. He quit in 2007 and then ran for parliament last year.

After the June election protests, Ali Larijani was one of the few officials to acknowledge that many Iranians questioned the results. “The opinion of this majority should be respected, and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants,” he said in comments posted on an Iranian website. He also said government ministers should come to the job with experience. Cabinet nominations require parliamentary approval, and the legislature has previously rejected Ahmadinejad’s choices as unqualified. The vote on Cabinet nominations will be the first major test for Ahmadinejad as he begins his second term.

The ill will between Larijani and Ahmadinejad is rooted in a social-class divide. The Larijanis have a religious bloodline enhanced by marriage into prominent clerical families, giving them status beyond politics. Ali Larijani represents Qum–the center of Islamic scholarship in Iran–in parliament. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, is the son of a blacksmith. “The Larijanis are in the privileged class thanks to the revolution, and Ahmadinejad is a self-made man,” said Maloney. “When he criticizes patronage and corruption, he’s striking at the heart of a system that the Larijanis created and benefited from.”

Thus far, however, all the Larijanis have heeded political boundaries. On Aug. 12, Ali Larijani announced that a parliamentary investigation had rejected torture claims made by some arrested during the postelection turmoil. “On the basis of precise and comprehensive investigations conducted about the detainees at Kahrizak and Evin prisons, no cases of rape and sexual abuse were found,” he told parliament. Many analysts believe Ali Larijani may be preparing himself to run for the presidency after Ahmadinejad’s term ends in 2013. The brothers “are nakedly ambitious. Their overarching principle seems to be to position themselves wherever power lies,” said Sadjadpour. “If the Shah were still in power, they’d be [working with] him. And if Iran evolves into a democracy, they’ll try and reinvent themselves as progressive democrats.” If that happens, Iranians may find themselves with their own version of Camelot in more ways than one.

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