The brothers Larijani — often referred to as the Kennedys of Iran — are emerging as a powerful counterweight to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from within the conservative camp. And unlike other Ahmadinejad rivals, the Larijanis are fully endorsed by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.
The Aug. 15 appointment of Sadegh Larijani as head of Iran's judiciary puts Larijanis at the head two of the three branches of Iran's government. Older brother Ali Larijani is speaker of parliament.
Over the past 30 years, the five sons of a senior cleric have been a major force in Iran's power structure, either serving in or running for positions including the presidency and various diplomatic roles as well as posts in Cabinet ministries, the Council of Guardians, the legislature, the powerful National Security Council, the judiciary, Iran's top broadcasting authority and even the Revolutionary Guards. Over the past year, they have consolidated their power.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated mathematician, has been a member of parliament, Deputy Foreign Minister and adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Bagher Larijani, a physician, has served as Deputy Minister of Health. And Fazel Larijani, a diplomat, spent years posted in Ottawa. All five are bearded and bespectacled.
Sadegh Larijani takes over Iran's judiciary at a critical moment, as the government mounts mass trials of opposition supporters who stand accused of fomenting a foreign-backed velvet revolution against the regime. The third such trial opened Aug. 16. A comparatively junior cleric for such a high-profile job (he was born in 1960, month unknown), Sadegh served for eight years on the 12-member Council of Guardians, the powerful body that vets legislation, political candidates and election results.
His appointment to a five-year term reflects the Supreme Leader's trust in the Larijanis amid unprecedented public anger over the disputed June 12 presidential election, and the alleged torture and rape of protesters arrested in a brutal crackdown.
"Sadegh Larijani's ties to the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies provide ample reason to believe that he will use his new powers to crack down even further on human rights and civil liberties than did his predecessor," Mehdi Khalaji wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
His skepticism may be based on the fact that the Larijanis were powerful critics of Iran's reform movement during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami. But the Larijanis also reflect a nuanced but significant difference from the hard-line principlist movement of President Ahmadinejad. In Iran's ever shifting political spectrum, the brothers are today considered pragmatic conservatives.
"Ten years ago, the Larijanis would have been considered arch hard-liners," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But the spectrum has moved so far right in recent years that now, compared with Ahmadinejad, they appear somewhat moderate."
The differences between the Larijanis and Ahmadinejad are both political and personal. Ali Larijani ran for President against Ahmadinejad in 2005; he came in sixth with less than 6% of the vote. Khamenei then appointed him head of the National Security Council, a body that reports to the Supreme Leader rather than the President, who has just one seat on the council.
In that capacity, Larijani was the lead negotiator with the international community on Iran's disputed nuclear program. Although he took a tough line on Iran's right to enrich uranium as part of its energy program, he was also interested in a deal that would prevent deepening Iran's isolation, according to diplomats involved in the talks.
But Ali Larijani often found himself at odds with Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric, and finally quit in 2007, underscoring the political divide even among the conservatives. "They were ideological differences," Larijani told an Iranian news agency. "I thought that the differences would be damaging and thus I resigned." Larijani ran for parliament last year, and was elected speaker.
After the June election protests erupted, Ali Larijani was also one of the few regime officials to publicly warn that many Iranians questioned Ahmadinejad's victory. "The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants," Larijani said in comments posted on an Iranian website.
In a further jab at Ahmadinejad, the speaker warned last week that government ministers should have the qualifications necessary for their positions. Cabinet picks require parliamentary approval, and the legislature has previously rejected Ahmadinejad's picks for being unqualified. The vote on his Cabinet nominations will be the first major test for Ahmadinejad as he begins his second and final term.
Thus far, however, all the Larijanis have heeded political boundaries. Ali Larijani last week announced that a parliamentary investigation proved that some detainee claims of torture were false. "On the basis of precise and comprehensive investigations conducted about the detainees at Kahrizak and Evin prisons, no cases of rape and sexual abuse were found," he told parliament. The probe lasted less than a week.
"Larijani has been a very ineffective speaker," says Iran scholar Shaul Bakhash. "[Parliament] has been a virtual no-show on all issues during his leadership ... And his investigation of allegations of mistreatment of prisoners was clearly slapdash."
The ill will between the Larijanis and Ahmadinejad is also rooted in a social class divide, according to Sadjadpour. The Larijani brothers are the progeny of the late Grand Ayatullah Mirza Hashem Amoli, a marja whose interpretations of Islam are considered binding by a following of devout Shi'ite Muslims. Some of his sons have also married into prominent clerical families, giving them status beyond politics. Ali Larijani represents Qum, the center of Islamic scholarship in Iran, in parliament. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, is the son of a blacksmith.
Over the years, the Larijani brothers have expressed realist positions on Iran's relations with the United States. Mohammad Javad Larijani, who did doctoral work in mathematics at the University of California, has often urged an end to tensions. "Our country's relations with America are important in terms of our national interests," he said in a public debate a decade ago. "We should regard our relations with America realistically and without extremism, and weigh them with the criteria of our national interests."
But critics also charge that the Larijani brothers have risen so far as much from opportunism as political savvy. Many analysts believe Ali Larijani may be positioning himself to run for the presidency again after Ahmadinejad's term ends in 2013. "They are nakedly ambitious. Their overarching principle seems to be to position themselves wherever power lies," said Sadjadpour. "If the Shah were still in power they'd be coveting him. And if Iran evolves into a democracy they'll try and reinvent themselves as progressive democrats."