The Brothers Larijani: A sphere of power

As the country gears up for the elections, Al Jazeera takes a look at one of Iran’s most influential political families.

turkey iran leaders meet in ankara
Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani has been one of President Ahmadinejad's most vocal critics [Reuters]

Five brothers occupy five key posts within Iran’s complex political system. Between them they dominate two of the top three institutions in the country; the parliament and the judiciary. The others hold positions within the human rights council, the ministry of health, and the diplomatic corps.

What makes them fascinating is their pragmatic ability to shift with the winds and switch on a dime. By doing so, the Larijanis put themselves in a position where they could be useful no matter what.

by Marsha B. Cohen, analyst

Add them all together, and the result is one family with an incredible amount of power in their hands.

While it is not uncommon to see political figures manoeuvre family members into key positions in Iran – both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have done the same – there is no dispute among political experts that the Larijanis are an exception in terms of their numbers and far-reaching control.

“Family relations in Iranian politics is not unusual,” Farideh Farhi, an independent researcher on Iran and affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii, told Al Jazeera. “You could see it in the period before the [1979 Islamic] revolution, and it’s still very present after the revolution.

“But what distinguishes the Larijanis is the number of brothers and the direction they are moving in; whether it is ideological consistency or their ability to place themselves in opportunistic situations,” she said. “There are so many of them, and they have clearly used their relations for power.”

Seen as part and parcel of what is considered to be Iran’s traditional conservative political circle, the Larijanis have managed to retain a secure grip within the power structure, a feat attributed by analysts to the family’s unique ability to keep moving with the changing tides of Iran’s political scene.

“What makes them fascinating is their pragmatic ability to shift with the winds and switch on a dime. By doing so, the Larijanis put themselves in a position where they could be useful no matter what,” Marsha B Cohen, an independent scholar and news analyst specialising in US foreign policy towards Iran, told Al Jazeera.

Comparing Iran’s political scene to a kaleidoscope – “the pieces are all there, you just move them around to shift the picture” – Cohen put the Larijanis’ ability to survive in such an environment on being the sort of people “who can change their stances and move with the pieces”.

Who’s who

The most prominent of the five is Ali Larijani. Born in 1957, he studied computer and mathematics for his undergraduate studies before shifting to philosophy for his post-graduate studies.

After serving in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, he moved through the political ranks, starting as deputy minister of labour and social affairs, to deputy minister of information and communications, to minister of culture and Islamic guidance. He also served as a security adviser to Khamanei, and spent ten years as head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

In 2008, he was elected to parliament. He was voted in as speaker after just two months, and has been re-elected to the position every year since.

Sadeq Larijani, born in 1960, said to be an intellectual, became a theology student in the city of Qom. Early in his career he was appointed as one of the 12 members of the Guardian Council, a position he retained for eight years. In 2009, at the age of 49, he became the youngest ever person to head Iran’s judicial system.

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, born in 1951, had been studying for his PhD in the United States when the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979. Abandoning his studies, he returned to Iran, and later served in two parliaments, between 1992 and 2000. He also held the position of director of the Majlis research centre, a position now held by his cousin. Mohammad-Javad currently serves as head of the human rights council, which falls under the judiciary, headed by his brother.

Bagher Larijani graduated as a medical doctor, and became deputy minister of health and chancellor of Tehran University’s medical department. He resigned from this position in December 2012. He is currently the head of the endocrinology and metabolism research unit.

Fazel Larijani is a physicist, and served for a considerable period as the cultural attaché in Ottawa, Canada.

Family connections

The Larijanis’ father, Grand Ayatollah Hashem Amoli, was a renowned cleric who fled to the Iraqi city of Najaf with his wife during the 1930s to avoid persecution under the Shah. In Iraq, they had three of their sons; Mohammad-Javad, Ali and Sadeq, before moving back to Iran in the 1960s where they then had the remaining two; Bagher and Fazel.

Their maternal grandfather was Grand Ayatollah Mohsen Ashrafi. Their maternal uncle is Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli, another influential conservative cleric, and their cousin on their mother’s side is Ahmad Tavakoli, a member of parliament, current director of the Majlis research centre, and a former presidential candidate.

Sadeq is married to the daughter of Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasami, another heavyweight cleric, while Ali married the daughter of Ayatollah Mortaza Motehari, said to be Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s most revered student.

“What you have is the following picture: The Larijanis have good ties with the clerical establishment thanks to their family connections, and they also have important allies in the Iranian parliament,” Mehrzad Boroujerdi, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, told Al Jazeera.

“Together, these ensure their network of influence in Iranian politics.”

Evidence of this is found in their relations with Khamenei, who has played a consistent role in their elevation through the ranks. He personally selected Ali to head the IRIB for a decade, as well as appointing Sadeq to the Guardian Council, and then as head of the judiciary.

“Since 2000, the Larijanis have become more pragmatic relative to others close to Khamenei, and what they have done well is position themselves close to the Supreme Leader, while knowing which way the political winds are blowing,”  said Reza Marashi, director of research at the National Iranian American Council.

Yet holding court with Khamenei has proven to be a double-edged sword, for while it has provided the Larijanis with a power base others can only dream of, it does not mean they are infallible.

“The Supreme Leader gives politicians a bit of leash, but if he thinks you’re going too far, or attempting to tip the balance he’s created, he’ll get rid of you,” said Marashi.

“For Khamenei, even though [the Larijanis] are his loyal lieutenants, he has to keep an eye on them so the family doesn’t become so powerful as to overshadow him,” said Boroujerdi.

Furthermore, their appointments raised eyebrows, calling into question their credentials, which may explain why they have not managed to secure any serious popular support.

Experts point to Sadegh, who, as head of the judiciary, was seen as being too young and inexperienced to hold such an esteemed position.

“People understood his appointment as head of the judiciary as someone who will do whatever he will be told, so in that sense he doesn’t really have much credibility,” explained Farhi.

Meanwhile, Ali was forced to bow out of the presidential race in 2005 after securing only five percent of the popular vote.

Syracuse’s Boroujerdi attributed this lack of popularity to Ali’s time as head of IRIB, a position he used to provide lukewarm coverage of the reformist president at the time, Mohammad Khatami.

“During Ali’s presidential campaign, voters remembered how he was head of an institution that did its best to discredit many of the reformists, so many did not forgive him for that,” said Boroujerdi.

Scandals and presidential aspirations

As with all things political, one cannot move without stumbling into a scandal, with the Larijanis being no exception.

“Although the Larijani family is very powerful with connections, you also see limits as to how far they can go,” said Farhi. “People are always open to revelations about them, which prevents them from taking the next step.”

In 1997, Mohammad-Javad, already seen as a wildcard due to his outspoken advocacy of warming relations with the US, was embroiled in a scandal that is said to have torpedoed his political career.

While serving as an adviser to Khatami’s rival in the presidential elections, reports emerged that he held secret meetings with the British foreign ministry, in which he asked for their backing, assuring them his candidate was a sure bet.

“When this information came to light, it had a huge negative affect on his campaign, and Khatami won the elections,” said Boroujerdi.

“It was an embarrassment for the family to have been associated with holding talks with the Brits, and it was used to discredit the family.”

Ahmadinejad accused the Larijanis of corruption

In February this year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aired a recording in parliament of what he alleged was Fazel Larijani engaging in abuses of power and corruption, an accusation he leveraged against the whole family, saying they had turned the judiciary into a “family organisation”.

Ali Larijani, in turn, told Ahmadinejad that airing such recordings revealed more about the president than it did anything else.

“Now people will now know your character better,” Larijani is reported to have said.

For Boroujerdi, the very public spat pitting Ahmadinejad against the family can be interpreted as the incumbent president’s attempt to discredit the Larijanis and thwart any aspiration they may have had at taking a stab at the presidency.

“In the Iranian system it is really strange to have a family considered to be ‘the Kennedys of Iran’, and it hasn’t worked to their benefit really,” Boroujerdi said. “It has created a lot of resentment, precisely because they operate as a family unit.”

But others argue the power held by the brothers currently places them head and shoulders above the president, so seeking the presidency is not only not a priority, but doing so may actually limit their sphere of control.

“As president you have to present yourself to a public vote and be subject to a campaign where you come out as either a winner or loser,” Cohen said. “Whereas, to get a position in which you are appointed, or elected by political insiders, can actually be more influential.”

Referring to Ali Larijani, Cohen said that the number of times he has made appearances in the headlines commenting on issues indicates the level at which he is involved in key portfolios.

“Things you would expect a president or foreign minister to say on world affairs, you actually have Ali Larijani commenting on instead,” she said.

“So, in the long run, the presidency could be a less influential position, especially while having brothers in other significant positions as well.”

While Marashi agreed with Boroujerdi’s interpretation of the recent public showdown between the Larijanis and Ahmadinejad, he pointed out that not securing the presidency does not necessarily deny them power.

“A lot of analysts believe that Ali Larijani was positioning himself to run for the presidency, and this is a big reason as to why Ahmadinejad aired that video,” Marashi said.

“But the overall, overarching goal is that they are positioning themselves to amass power… and they can do that by using their political clout in backroom deals to ensure they remain a significant part of whatever comes next.”

And as Iran enters its final weeks in the lead-up to the presidential elections, the Larijanis have remained shtum on their preferred candidate, seemingly opting to see which way the winds will blow.

Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha

Source: Al Jazeera