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The End Of The Larijani Era In Iran?

Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani gives a press conference in Tehran, December 1, 2019

Amid the talk of reduction in Iran’s nuclear commitments, the slaughtering of protesters, and sanctions, an important political development has gone underreported. The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, won’t be running for reelection during the upcoming contests in February 2020. Larijani has been the longest-serving head of the legislative chamber since 1979—with a tenure that spans over 11 years. Three takeaways from his departure include the diminished power of the Larijani family; jockeying ahead of Iran’s presidential election in 2021; and the potential for a successor closer to the IRGC as speaker in 2020.

Ali Larijani was arguably the most qualified politician to ascend to the speakership—having previously served as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and chief nuclear negotiator. While Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had sterling revolutionary credentials when he became speaker—as a close aide to the founder the Islamic Revolution Ruhollah Khomeini and as an acting interior minister—they didn’t come close to the sheer breadth and depth of Larijani’s management experience before taking the Majles’ top job. Ditto for Mehdi Karroubi, a longtime legislator; Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a onetime interior minister and experienced lawmaker; and Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, an academic, legislator, and in-law of Iran’s supreme leader—all had resumes which paled in comparison to Larijani. But once in the job, Rafsanjani wielded the most powerful gavel to date, given his relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini and the leadership role he played during the Iran-Iraq War.

A Political Comedown

The end of the Larijani era in parliament coincides with the fall from grace of his brother, Sadegh Larijani, the former chief of Iran’s Judiciary and current head of the Expediency Council. For a decade, the Larijani family controlled two branches of government, and was a force to be reckoned with in the halls of power in Tehran. The Larijanis owe their initial standing in Iran to a family network—their father was influential Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hashem Amoli and both Ali and Sadegh married daughters of prominent clerics. That’s not to mention additional Larijani brothers and cousins holding positions of influence as well.

That heavyweight lineage coupled with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s steady promotion of both through the ranks provided the ingredients for their long tenures at the helm of multiple organs of power in the Islamic Republic. There was even speculation that Ali Larijani could be president with Sadegh Larijani as supreme leader one day.

However, Ali Larijani’s decision not to run for reelection came at a time when Sadegh Larijani has been the subject of anti-corruption probes by his successor as head of the Judiciary, Ebrahim Raeesi (Raisi). While the former chief justice still holds onto his post as chairman of the Expediency Council, his stock as a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei has been tarnished as a result of the revelations. With Ali Larijani out of the Majles as well, it will be the first time since at least 2008 that the family won’t control one of the three branches of government and won’t have a seat on the SNSC. In regime political terms, that’s a sea change.

A Political Comeback?

Even before the voting begins for the next parliament in Iran, officials are positioning and promoting themselves ahead of the end of the Rouhani era in 2021. With Ali Larijani exiting the legislative stage, speculation has been mounting that he may run for the presidency. At a recent press conference, he said “Let me make it clear, I have no plan for the 2021 presidential election”—language that is far from clear as it indicates only current intentions and provides him with flexibility to decide at a future date.

If Larijani decides to run, he would join an already emerging early field of potential contenders—veteran Member of Parliament Ali Motahari, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri, former head of IRIB Ezzatollah Zarghami, and former Secretary of the SNSC Saeed Jalili could be candidates.

But Larijani faces long odds. Every speaker of Iran’s parliament has attempted to use the position as a springboard for higher office—namely the presidency. However, only one—Rafsanjani—has been successful thus far. Making things even more difficult, Larijani wouldn’t be running as an incumbent speaker, and would thus lack a natural political platform that the office provides.

Even more challenging will be the bad blood that exists across the political spectrum for Larijani. Reformists view him with suspicion after his tenure at IRIB—where Larijani tolerated a program called Hoviyyat and dailies like Jaam-e Jam, which viciously attacked Reformist figures. He fares no better with conservatives, who view him as enabling and endorsing Rouhani’s signature initiatives, like the nuclear deal and votes on the bills which lay the groundwork for Iran to fulfill the Financial Action Task Force’s action plan. Indeed, even if Larijani sought to replicate the Rouhani coalition, he would face stiff competition from his Reformist Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who performed well during debates in 2017.

A New Speaker

Adding to the intrigue is the prospect of who will replace Larijani as speaker. A late entry into the parliamentary race was Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf—the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Air Force, chief of the Iranian Police, and mayor of Tehran. Iranian media are already speculating that Qalibaf has the best chance to become speaker. If Qalibaf were to win, it could make Rouhani’s last months in office more difficult, as he would face now two former rivals for the presidency—Qalibaf and Raeesi—controlling the Majles and judiciary, respectively. The speaker and chief justice also have seats on the newly-formed Supreme Economic Coordination Council (ECC), or an “economic war room” created by the regime amid the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. Additionally, Qalibaf may not be as willing as Larijani was to run legislative interference for the administration.

That’s not to mention that if Qalibaf ascends to the office, he will be the first former commander of a branch of the IRGC occupying the speakership. While Ali Larijani served as an IRGC deputy chief of staff and deputy minister in its early years, he lacks the strength of Qalibaf’s alumni status. The former mayor of Tehran actually headed two IRGC organs—the Air Force and the construction conglomerate Khatam al-Anbia. While there are members of parliament who are already former IRGC officers, Qalibaf’s elevation to the speakership may provide new avenues for IRGC influence over elected branches of power.

After the repeated interference by unelected organs of state and the supreme leader’s private note to legislators asking them not to oppose the new gas policy, parliament’s already diminished authority has further eroded. However, the sheer longevity of Ali Larijani’s tenure, his seat on the SNSC and ECC, and his family’s influence make his exit from the scene all the more notable.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Jason M. Brodsky

    Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and is on Twitter. He previously worked at the Wilson Center as special assistant to the Director, President and CEO and as a research associate in its Middle East Program. @JasonMBrodsky