Criticism of Larijani reflects pressures within Iran’s ruling class

Many resent the Larijani family’s influence — his four brothers include Ali, the parliamentary speaker — and they were publicly targeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran from 2005-13.

Saturday 24/08/2019
Mohammad-Javad Larijani, secretary of the High Council for Human rights, poses prior to a meeting in  Tehran, last June.(AFP)
Striving to be in front. Mohammad-Javad Larijani, secretary of the High Council for Human rights, poses prior to a meeting in Tehran, last June.(AFP)

The arrest of Akbar Tabari, a senior if an obscure official in Iran’s Expediency Council, sparked a nasty spat among Iran’s senior politicians. Corruption charges related to Tabari’s work in the judiciary have implications for both leading candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iranian supreme leader: Sadegh Larijani, former judiciary chief; and Ebrahim Raeisi, current judiciary chief.

Tabari was already at the judiciary when Larijani was appointed its head in 2009 but he rose in the ranks under a man whose family hails from his home province, Mazandaran. Tabari became first the judiciary’s finance director and then executive deputy, posts with access to ample resources.

When Larijani stepped down earlier this year — chief justices serve ten years — to become secretary at the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between state bodies, Tabari went with him. News of Tabari’s arrest in July came from parliamentary deputy Hassan Norouzi and was confirmed by judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Esmaili.

Since then, tempers have risen with criticism of Larijani on state television and statements along similar lines from Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, judiciary chief 1989-99 and close to Khamenei.

Many resent the Larijani family’s influence — his four brothers include Ali, the parliamentary speaker — and they were publicly targeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran from 2005-13 but the Larijanis have always been seen as loyal lieutenants of Khamenei.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, is among those detecting disquiet at the top. “There is a major campaign to discredit Larijani and it seems to be happening with Khamenei’s blessing as a way of paving the way for Ebrahim Raeisi [to become leader after Khamenei],” Boroujerdi said. “This way, Raeisi can be presented as a corruption crusader. The fact that national TV is attacking Larijani is no accident.”

The judiciary began an anti-corruption campaign when Raeisi, previously head of the powerful foundation managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, was appointed its head in March. Raeisi dismissed some judges and invited Iranians to send him complaints or suggestions through social media. After it emerged that Larijani had 63 bank accounts, Raeisi made great play of how few he had.

Popular concern over corruption increased with the economic recession because of stringent US sanctions since US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.

“This isn’t just a matter of undermining the Larijanis,” said Saeid Golkar, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “People no longer talk of ‘hardliners’ and ‘moderates’ but about unemployment and corruption, about people in Tehran who can apparently make millions overnight while they struggle to feed their family. There is a new reality. Khamenei is trying to kill several birds with one stone.”

Undaunted, Larijani hit back with an open letter on the Expediency Council website questioning Yazdi’s religious credentials. Larijani suggested he was “paying the price” for his own investigations into malpractice by senior officials.

“All these attacks [on Larijani] in such a short time required coordination,” said Golkar. “That’s why Larijani wrote this letter saying he was like a safe containing secrets: ‘If you want to push me, I will talk about everything.’ He realised the best defence is attack.”

The timing, however, is not ideal. Dissension among the elites comes as Iran’s leaders struggle with growing international challenges.

Victories for Iran are scant. The judiciary has confirmed a 10-year sentence for spying on Aras Amiri, 34, an Iranian resident in the United Kingdom working for the British Council. The dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, in prison in Tehran since 2016, is reportedly facing tougher conditions, while her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, criticised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for inaction over her plight.

Some in Iran’s political class proclaimed triumph in Gibraltar’s release of the Iranian supertanker Grace I (since renamed the Adrian Darya I), carrying 2 million barrels of oil but many vent annoyance at Europe’s failure to offer tangible relief from US sanctions.

In a television interview, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, told NBC he had joined those in Iran who believe the 2015 nuclear agreement was a mistake. This broke from Iran’s strategy of putting pressure on other signatories by taking steps beyond the deal restrictions: since June, Tehran has expanded stocks of enriched uranium beyond 300 kilograms, increasing enrichment beyond 3.67% and resumed work on the Arak heavy-water reactor.

“There are pressures within the elite, from society and from outside,” said Golkar. “Shamkhani was one of those who pushed the idea [of the nuclear deal] and he is reflecting serious frustration with Europe. It’s difficult. If Iran withdraws from the deal, they will push Europe closer to the US. If they do nothing, they appear to accept a situation where they receive no benefits.”

15