By Saeed Ghasseminejad and Tzvi Kahn
September 11, 2019
Sadegh Larijani has had a difficult summer. Despite his loyalty to Iran’s 80-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Larijani has faced multiple public allegations of corruption as part of a coordinated campaign by Ebrahim Raisi, his key rival. Larijani is worried — and he should be. Widely regarded as the frontrunner in the race for succession, Raisi is a formidable political operator who earned a reputation for ruthlessness thanks to his key role in the regime’s 1988 massacre of thousands of political opponents.
It’s unlikely that Raisi, whom Khamenei appointed in March to replace Larijani as head of the judiciary, would have spearheaded the campaign without Khamenei’s approval. To be sure, the corruption charges are warranted: It’s no secret that Larijani has embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the public dole. Yet Raisi’s motives for targeting him likely stem from raw political interest: To become Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Raisi needs to consolidate support among regime insiders, especially the Assembly of Experts, which appoints Iran’s supreme leader. The assembly recently elected Raisi as its deputy chair with 43 out of 78 votes.
The political jockeying underscores a fundamental truth about the regime in Iran. While its clerical leaders often portray themselves as modest and pious representatives of God, beneath their façade lie yearnings for power and wealth — much like those of dictators throughout the world.
Sadegh Larijani and his four brothers, widely known as “the Kennedys of Iran,” descend from a line of prominent ayatollahs — most notably their father, Mirza Hashem Amoli Larijani. This lineage has enabled the Larijani brothers to build close ties with the clerical aristocracy and receive important leadership positions in the regime. In December 2018, Khamenei appointed Sadegh as the chairman of the Expediency Council, which adjudicates disputes between Iran’s parliament and the Guardian Council, a 12-member body that has veto power over bills passed by the parliament.
Ali Larijani, meanwhile, has served as the speaker of Iran’s parliament since 2008 and previously headed the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state-run media conglomerate. Mohammad-Javad Larijani is the secretary of the judiciary’s sadly misnamed High Council on Human Rights. Bagher Larijani is a former deputy health minister. Fazel Larijani previously served as Iran’s cultural attaché in Canada and is currently a senior official at the Islamic Azad University. In 2013, Fazel became infamous when then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a secretly recorded video of Fazel purportedly discussing a corrupt business deal.
The family’s success has whet Sadegh Larijani’s appetite for supreme power, placing him in Raisi’s crosshairs. Last month, in an apparent attempt to discredit Larijani, the Raisi-led judiciary arrested Akbar Tabari, Sadegh’s former deputy head of the judiciary for administrative affairs. According to Iranian media, Tabari has engaged in multiple acts of corruption. After his arrest, Iran’s state television aired criticism of Larijani’s corruption, an unusual move by an entity under the tight control of Khamenei, who previously seemed to regard Sadegh as a close ally.
Iranian media reported that Sadegh then wrote a letter to Khamenei asking him to pardon Tabari. Larijani’s office denied he sent the letter. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi — an influential cleric, a member of the Guardian Council, and a former chief justice — subsequently blasted Larijani over excessive spending, asked him to identify the source of his wealth, and mocked his purported threat to emigrate.
Sadegh’s efforts to clear his name are unlikely to succeed. Whatever Raisi’s motives, Larijani has no plausible defense for his history of venality. For example, a recent broadcast on Iran’s state-run television suggested that Larijani played a role in constructing a swath of mansions in a wealthy Tehran neighborhood, likely exploiting his connections to facilitate the project. Similarly, he built an expensive, luxurious seminary in the holy city of Qom. “They built a palace in the name of the seminary,” said Yazdi at a recent meeting of government officials, referring to Larijani. “Where did you get [the money]?” In 2016, an Iranian parliamentarian questioned Iran’s justice minister about allegations that Larijani had 63 private bank accounts with public funds.
Sadegh’s record has enabled Raisi to portray himself as an anti-corruption crusader. But Raisi’s own history gives him little standing to preach about government ethics. In addition to his role in the 1988 massacre, Raisi previously held multiple positons in the judiciary, where he sought or presided over draconian punishments — including the death penalty and torture — against countless political prisoners. Between 2016 and 2019, he served as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a massive business conglomerate with a real estate portfolio worth an estimated $20 billion, which effectively functions as a slush-fund for Khamenei.
This bloody resume has likely endeared Raisi to Khamenei as a more reliable torchbearer for the Islamic Revolution, leading Khamenei to give his blessing to Raisi’s campaign against Larijani. Thus, in the ongoing game of thrones between Raisi and Larijani, Raisi so far seems to have the upper hand.
But it may be too soon for Raisi to celebrate. The octrogenarian Khamenei may still rule for years to come. And the history of the Islamic Republic suggests that other, equally ruthless candidates may yet emerge and gain the favor of the Assembly of Experts, pushing both Raisi and Larijani aside. If Raisi is not worried now, perhaps he should be.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies