Meet the Larijanis, a power in Iran’s new aristocracy
London - For many centuries, Iran, under various dynasties, established an aristocracy knitted together by privilege and marriage. Under Reza Shah, who assumed the crown in 1925, and his successor, Mohammad Reza Shah, the Pahlavi dynasty presided over a country that in popular belief was ruled by an oligarchy of “one thousand families”.
Under the Islamic Republic, some have whispered of a new thousand families. “My father recently used the term about those benefiting from sanctions relief,” an Iranian academic, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Arab Weekly.
“In its first decade [after 1979], the Islamic Republic was informal, many of the clergy intermarried with the bazaar and then a younger generation with the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps] (IRGC), the bureaucracy, the universities and wider business interests. Plus, families like to have a son in each field,” the academic said.
Across the political factions there are famous examples of intermarriage: Mohammad Reza Khatami, dashing younger brother of former president Mohammad Khatami, is husband to a granddaughter of 1979 revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his controversial vice-president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, are linked by the marriage of their children.
The belief that former parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is supported by a daughter’s marriage to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba as well as his son Faridaddin’s role in the leader’s office.
Haddad-Adel’s second daughter is married to Rouhollah Rahmani, a US-born computer scientist who before returning to Iran worked for Microsoft and Amazon.
But of all the influential families, the Larijanis are perhaps the most prominent. Still the best known of five sons born to Ayatollah Mirza Hashem Amoli is Ali Larijani, 59, who as parliamentary speaker helped steer the landmark July 2015 nuclear agreement with US-led world powers through the legislature.
A consummate insider, he was formerly an IRGC commander, minister of Labour, head of state broadcasting and the top security official. Like his brothers, Ali Larijani was born in the Iraqi city of Najaf, after his father, from a religious family in the Caspian province of Mazandaran, fled the shah’s rule.
The eldest brother, Mohammad Javad Larijani, 65, gained a mathematics doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, before serving in the 1980s as an influential deputy Foreign minister but his reputation was damaged by revelations of a secret trip in 1997 to England to reassure the British that conservative presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateqh-Nouri harboured no hostile intentions; rumours also had Mohammad Javad criticising the leader’s competence.
“Mohammad Javad works today with the judiciary internationally as a director of human rights but he’s somehow been sidelined,” said the academic. “He wasn’t helped by accusations from Ahmadinejad of involvement in certain land deals.”
Bagher Larijani, 55, a deputy minister for Medical Education, is more of a technocrat. A leading medical doctor who specialises in endocrinology, he was ranked second in the world in 2015 for publications in medical ethics by Google Scholar.
As president, Ahmadinejad saw himself as challenging the establishment and in 2013 he took on the Larijani brothers, showing parliament recordings of their involvement in shady business dealings. Nearing the end of his second term, Ahmadinejad had already clashed with Khamenei and with parliament and had been summoned by deputies to defend his Labour minister against impeachment.
Ahmadinejad hit back by showing parliament a video clip of Fazel Larijani, formerly cultural attaché in Ottawa, apparently discussing buying a factory at a knock-down price from the state’s social welfare organisation. In return, he offered to use family connections to secure leniency for Saeed Mortazavi, an Ahmadinejad ally and a former Tehran state prosecutor facing accusations concerning three prison deaths.
The relevant connection was to the rising star among the Larijani brothers — Sadegh Larijani — the sole cleric among the five who is head of the judiciary, a post to which Khamenei appointed him in 2009 after he served on the watchdog Council of Guardians.
Like Ali, Sadegh, 55, married an ayatollah’s daughter. His father-in-law is Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, a traditional cleric whose son Mohsen Vahid was widely pictured in the Iranian media in 2014 delivering his father’s greetings to Khamenei in his hospital bed as he recovered from prostate surgery.
Sadegh Larijani is part of a rising generation of politicised clergy close to the leader. With supporters now calling Sadegh an ayatollah, some analysts see him as a possible successor when Khamenei dies or retires. Should that happen, he could count on support from his family.
There is popular scepticism, however. “Some Iranians speak of the Larijanis disrespectfully as the ‘Dalton Gang’, the wild west American criminal cowboys [including three brothers] who became a popular TV cartoon in Iran for many years,” the academic said.
“But have no doubt, if Sadegh wants to be leader, whatever policy differences they might have, Ali will support his brother. They all will. They’re all together and they bring many connections with them.”