In election year, Iranian brothers could expand power

In a year when Iran will elect a new president and could
face make-or-break decisions about its nuclear program, the country’s most prominent political family appears poised to extend its influence, strengthening the rule of hard-line clerics as they struggle with other power centers.

Larijani brothers now sit atop two of Iran’s three branches of government, the parliament and the judiciary, positions they have used to attempt to foil populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Speculation is rife that the best known of the five Larijani brothers, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, will make a second bid for the presidency when Ahmadinejad completes his final term in June.

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The rise of the brothers — staunch defenders of Islamic rule who have the confidence of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and their tensions with the more nationalist Ahmadinejad have underscored the competing strains of conservatism in Iran’s increasingly fractious politics.

Ali Larijani lost badly when he ran for president in the 2005 election that brought Ahmadinejad to office. But he has the strong support of Iran’s powerful clergy, which is seeking to maintain the power it has enjoyed since the inception of the theocracy. And his performance as a nuclear negotiator, from 2005 to 2007, won him points with hard-liners who lauded his refusal to bargain on what they believe are Iran’s fundamental rights to scientific progress.

What’s more, the reformists who ran in the 2009 presidential election have been sidelined, and authorities have yet to decide whether their allies will be allowed on the ballot.

‘Known commodities’

Analysts say it is unclear how greater influence by the Larijanis would affect Iran’s relations with the West or potential talks with Washington about the country’s contentious nuclear program. Mohammad Javad Larijani, who studied mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, travels regularly to the United States, where he has appeared on talk shows to rail in perfect English against American policies. Ali Larijani served as the lead negotiator on the Iranian nuclear program, earning a reputation among some Western officials as a pragmatist.

“They are known commodities to Western capitals and have made a reputation for themselves . . . as smart and tough negotiators,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University.

The Larijani ties to the supreme leader, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, mean Ali Larijani would probably be more empowered than Ahmadinejad to make a deal with Washington. But his worldliness does not mean he is more Western, analysts say — although he is less bombastic than Ahmadinejad, he and his brothers are also viewed as even stauncher ideologues.

Sons of an ayatollah who all received religious training as well as rigorous education in the sciences, the Larijanis are considered defenders of the original system of Islamic rule, and their public positions tend to be in line with Khamenei’s wishes. Ali Larijani is the top-ranking lawmaker from Iran’s religious center of Qom.

His style contrasts sharply with that of Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith who is popular with the working poor. Ahmadinejad, long considered part of the same class of conservatives, has fallen out of favor with Iran’s mullahs for openly challenging the supreme leader, distancing himself from clerical rule and promoting nationalist, rather than Islamic, ideas.

Ali and Sadegh Larijani, who was appointed by Khamenei in 2009 to head Iran’s judiciary, have hardly concealed their disdain for Ahmadinejad, wielding their powers to enact and enforce laws to thwart the president’s decisions and accusing him of overstepping his mandate. Such moves have been instrumental in cultivating discontent toward Ahmadinejad.

Sadegh Larijani, for example, has regularly rebuked the president for his attempts to reduce prison sentences, including those of two detained American hikers who were released in 2011. Larijani warned the president to stay out of judicial matters or face legal proceedings.

This month, Ali Larijani enacted a law blocking Ahmadinejad’s ability to further reduce utility subsidies and increase the cash deposits made to the vast majority of Iranians, effectively ending one of the president’s boldest demonstrations of executive power. He has blamed Iran’s economic woes on “executive mismanagement,” not international sanctions, as Ahmadinejad does.

“The authorities must not hide behind sanctions,” Larijani said last month.

Potential liabilities

The Larijanis’ belief in strict adherence to Islamic interpretations of justice, coupled with their insistence on Iran’s scientific rights and pride in the country’s technical advances, resonates with modern, yet religiously pious Iranians.

“The Larijani brothers come from a very well-educated and respectable elite family, and this distinguishes them from other politicians,” said Hossein, 28, an employee of a flooring and cabinet business in Tehran who declined to give his last name.

But their prominence is also their weakness, analysts say. Critics grumble that the family’s hold on several high-profile positions conflicts with a major founding goal of the Islamic republic: rooting out the nepotism and corruption that plagued Iranian monarchies for centuries.

“It is not expedient for our country to have two brothers as heads of two branches of government,” former lawmaker Hossein Fadaei told an Iranian newspaper in April.

Mohammad Javad Larijani has long battled accusations that he obtained a large piece of land illegally. He has dismissed doubts about whether he will be aggressively tried by courts overseen by his brother.

“We Larijanis do not recognize brotherhood in our jobs,” he told reporters in November.

Farideh Farhi, an affiliate graduate faculty member in political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said she thinks Ali Larijani’s elite reputation, a potential liability with working-class voters, makes him unlikely to risk another run for president.

“His style and language is patrician, and if his opponents think he has a chance to win, the charges against his brother for corruption and illegal land grab are bound to come to the fore,” Farhi wrote in an e-mail.

But Ali Larijani’s dozens of trips abroad as parliament speaker — some of them attempts to shore up some of Iran’s wobbling international alliances — are fueling speculation about his presidential aspirations.

In November, he met in Damascus with besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pledging Iran’s assistance in ending the violence there. After the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip the same month, he proclaimed Iran’s support for Hamas, the militant movement that runs Gaza and has recently distanced itself from Iran.

The Larijanis’ rhetoric is unwaveringly anti-American. Recently, though, Sadegh Larijani expressed support for direct talks with the United States under the right circumstances.

“Relations with the United States are not easy, and after all the U.S. pressures and crimes against the Iranian people, such relations can’t be established overnight,” Sadegh Larijani said after President Obama’s reelection.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, however, was less diplomatic. He said in November that Iran would be willing to negotiate with the United States “in the abyss of hell” if it would protect the country’s interests.

 
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