As lobbying and unofficial campaigning starts for the 2021 presidential elections in Iran, some reformists have been distancing themselves from Majles Speaker Ali Larijani and have started criticizing him for his role in recent political developments, while other reformists have been grooming him for the country's top executive post.
Early campaigning is one of the characteristic features of presidential elections in Iran.
While being criticized by some reformists, Larijani is not the poster boy of many conservatives either. This is because he has wiggled his way between the two factions for quite a while.
For at least a decade Larijani has been trying to present himself as an independent non-partisan political figure who is not under the influence of rival factions in Iran. Some say his moves are based on a model presented by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Larijani was initially part and parcel of Iranian hardliners during his term of office as the head of Iran's state-run TV in late 1990s and early 2000s and played into their hands by broadcasting damning documentaries to tarnish the reformists' image. But that changed over the years.
Following his defeat in the 2005 Presidential elections and his dismissal from the post of the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Larijani tried his best to portray himself as a non-partisan politician.
His next move was to take part in the Majles election from Qom, a city that hosts Iran's biggest seminary. A move, that portrayed him as top ayatollahs' favorite. That is in fact not far from the truth as he is the son of a top ayatollah.
During the 8th and 9th rounds of the Majles (2008 - 2016), Larijani more or less established himself as an independent politician, who of course, never dared to challenge the Supreme Leader's authoritarian rule. Those who did, have been under house arrest for the best part of a decade.
He never took a clear and transparent position about the disputed presidential election in 2009 which effectively divided the nation and the country's political circles. Hardliners, including -then- pro-Ahmadinejad Paydari (steadfastness) Party did not like this stance.
Hassan Rouhani's victory in the 2013 Presidential election marked a new chapter in Larijani's political career. The two knew each other very well and had worked together. Rouhani gave a good share of his cabinet to Larijani's men. That included Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. This time, Iran's reformist did not like that.
As Larijani started to align his positions with Rouhani's so called moderate and pro-reform administration, hardliners who were trying to undercut the Rouhani administration by questioning and impeaching his ministers in parliament, accused Larijani of obstruction.
Disappointed by Larijani's alliance with Rouhani, conservatives refused to back Larijani as a candidate in the latest Majles elections in 2016, but the reformists-moderates coalition included his name in the list of their candidates and strongly supported him. They also lent him their support to become the speaker of the Majles for the third time.
The political scene however has changed since then and some reformists have recently began criticizing Larijani as talks about his probable candidacy in the next presidential election became serious. Their pretext, according to MPs, was Larijani's support for reformist labor minister Rabiei's dismissal from the cabinet in September 2018.
Rabiei's supporters have charged that Larijani has facilitated Mohammad Shariatmadari's appointment as the new labor minister. They claimed that Shariatnmadari is going to fund Larijani's presidential campaign, using his influence in the labor ministry's wealthy pension fund that owns several companies.
But other reformists think differently. Figures such as publisher Mohammad Atrianfar have put forward Larijani's name as a potential candidate, grooming him for the top executive post in 2021. "All of us reformists are committed to support Mr. Larijani's candidacy," He said.
Some reformist analysts, such as Sadeq Zibakalam, however, say that supporting Rouhani in the two previous elections has discredited reformists as Rouhani failed to deliver on his promises. "If they promote Larijani, a former conservative, as their choice, this will put an end to their prestige as reformists."
Other reformist figures, such as newspaper publisher and member of parliament Elias Hazrati, have put forward well-known reformists' name, including incumbent vice-president Es'haq Jahangiri and MP Mohammad Reza Aref as their choices for the 2021 presidential race.
Previously, early starts in the race have not been successful. Generally, in Iranian presidential elections, last minute candidates such as Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani have won the elections. Also, no previously defeated candidate in Iran has won the presidential elections later. Larijani lost the 2005 election to Ahmadinejad after winning only 6% of the votes cast and ranking 6th among seven candidates.
Observers say Larijani has no other grassroots support if reformists do not nominate him for the presidential race.
On the other hand, the chaotic political situation that followed the US pull-out from the nuclear deal with Iran and Khamenei's insistence on continuing his current uncompromising posture that has led to Iran's isolation in the international community has disappointed both some of the conservatives and reformists. They might be looking for a new face who is not necessarily identified with one of the two factions. That new face can be Ali Larijani.