Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s loss of favor with the country’s ruling elite may turn into a gain for Ali Larijani.
The parliament leader, one of five brothers who have all served in public office, is increasing his influence ahead of elections in June amid the most turbulent time in Iranian politics since Ahmadinejad faced down street protests in 2009. While Larijani hasn’t yet declared whether he will run for the presidency, the heart of his family’s power is unwavering allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“They are undoubtedly one of the top few most important political families in the Islamic Republic,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They are the closest thing the Islamic Republic has to aristocracy.”
Larijani, whose family Time magazine in 2009 called the “the Kennedys of Iran,” is cementing his rivalry with Ahmadinejad as the country’s standoff with the U.S. and Israel over its nuclear program prolongs and it battles a currency slide sparked by international sanctions. The friction worsened in recent months with a public dispute between the president and Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary.
“They’ve done well positioning themselves very closely to the Supreme Leader and by being very good at knowing where the wind blows,” said Gala Riani, head analyst for the Middle East at London-based consultants Control Risks. Ali Larijani is a “main critic of Ahmadinejad and at the same time he ensures that parliament conducts its business in accordance with the wishes of the Supreme Leader,” she said.
While Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a cooling of relations with Khamenei, the cleric intervened to temper the attacks on the 56-year-old president by rivals blaming him for mismanagement of the economy since he came to power in 2005.
In October, Khamenei told officials to stop bickering and on Nov. 21 told lawmakers to scrap a plan to drag Ahmadinejad before the parliament for questions over his alleged shortcomings, saying it would be “what the enemy seeks.”
It followed a spat between Sadegh Larijani and Ahmadinejad after the judiciary barred the president from visiting a Tehran prison. Ali Larijani answered the same day that obeying Khamenei’s demand “is a matter of pride” for lawmakers.
In contrast to Ahmadinejad, whose father worked as a blacksmith, the Larijanis are sons of the late senior cleric Ayatollah Mirza Hashemi Amoli.
The family’s roots are in the northern Mazandaran province, which borders the Caspian Sea. All five sons have some background in religious studies and have held positions in Iran’s power structure since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
While no opponent has officially declared an intention to run, what’s known is that the contest will be between candidates loyal to Iran’s religious tenets with rivalries more about factions than ideology. The Iranian constitution prohibits Ahmadinejad from seeking another term on June 14.
Ali Larijani “will not move away from the core ideology of the Islamic Republic and in essence a lot of the same principles that Ahmadinejad adheres to,” Riani said. Still, he “would be a potential candidate for Iran to be seen as having a more pragmatic approach,” she said.
The parliament’s press affairs office referred requests for comments from Ali Larijani to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which did not respond.
Ali Larijani, 54 this year, has “many skills both in terms of knowledge and when it comes to his work,” Khamenei has said, according to a report on the parliament leader’s website. “He is a good thinker, is sharp, has a fresh mind and in terms of faith and religion is among our brothers.”
Whoever it is, the next president will need such attributes as the country’s economy lurches.
The rial slumped by about 43 percent against the dollar in street trading since August, a decline Ahmadinejad blamed on sanctions. The inflation rate rose to 25 percent in October, according to Iran’s central bank, more than double the pace of two years earlier.
The U.S. approved on Nov. 30 new financial penalties on foreign businesses and banks involved in Iran’s energy, ports, shipping and shipbuilding industries and in metals trading. The latest sanctions came in addition to a European Union ban on imports of Iranian crude that came into force July 1.
Ali Larijani was formerly top nuclear negotiator, culture minister and head of Iran’s state broadcaster, while Sadegh previously was a member of the Council of Guardians, a body able to veto legislation.
The three other brothers also held key posts. Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the country’s top human-rights official and an adviser to Khamenei, worked as a deputy foreign minister. Bagher Larijani did a stint as a deputy health minister and Fazel Larijani was a diplomat in Canada.
In Ali Larijani’s own words, the brothers are “seminary sons who lost their way and accidentally ended up in executive roles,” according to Tehran-based news website Khabar Online.
Their distrust of Ahmadinejad is rooted in their social standing, Sadjadpour said. They have “always looked down at Ahmadinejad as a blacksmith’s son,” he said.
Some of the tension also stems from personal rivalries. Ali Larijani quit in 2007 as nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad over differences with the president. In the 2005 elections he ran against Ahmadinejad, though failed to garner many votes. He didn’t stand in the 2009 election.
All candidates have to be screened by the Guardian Council, a group of clerics and jurists, based on criteria including their adherence to the theocracy’s principles. The two-week campaign in Iran means candidates and platforms are only introduced shortly before the vote.
Unlike Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani is not a particularly “mass oriented” person, and whether he takes part in the next race is dependent on who else will run, said Farideh Farhi, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Though it’s still “too soon to predict,” Farhi said, Larijani is unlikely to run if Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf or Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, do “since he would be competing with them over similar constituencies,” she said.
Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of the Iranian capital himself, beat former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in June 2005 by mobilizing support through the country’s mosques and calling for a better distribution of wealth in the energy-rich country. He built on his working class background and religious faith.
Larijani’s participation may also be subject to the Supreme Leader’s endorsement. In the 2009 race, it was Khamenei’s backing that allowed Ahmadinejad to secure a second term in the face of widespread street protests over alleged voting fraud.
“The most important vote in Iran’s presidential election is that of Ayatollah Khamenei,” Sadjadpour said. “The question is whether Khamenei would trust Ali Larijani to be his loyal subordinate, or whether he suspects he’s too ambitious, like Ahmadinejad proved to be.”