'President' Larijani: A star is born
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - When Ali Larijani was authoring his graduate dissertation on German
philosophy, then writing a book about 18th century German philosopher Emmanuel
Kant, he never imagined that shortly after graduation in 1980 - at the age of
22 - he would become director of state television in Iran.
Life certainly has been good for the shrewd Iranian statesman, who studied both
literature and computer science, and is now preparing himself to become the
master of Tehran. Thanks to the patronage of Iranian heavyweights like Grand
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has drifted through some of the country's most
senior jobs, becoming - as of June 1 - speaker of the Iranian Majlis
He is now bracing himself for the presidential elections in 2009
and many are already betting he will be the man to replace his friend, Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, as president of the Islamic republic.
A star is born?
Ali Larijani is the man to watch in the next 12 months of Iranian affairs. The
son of an ayatollah and the son-in-law of an ayatollah, he is well connected in
the upper echelons of the clerical community of Tehran and Qum. He holds a PhD
in Western philosophy, and began his career as director of state television,
shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979, and as a member of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Before that he had been active in student politics, opposing ex-Shah Reza
Pahlavi. He then rose with dramatic speed, becoming deputy minister of the
IRGC, and married the daughter of ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, an influential
cleric liked and respected by the republic's founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, and
his successor Khamenei.
The exact date of Larijani's first encounter with Khamenei is unknown, but
often the grand ayatollah has referred to him as "my son". Confident,
charismatic and well educated, he made his way into the grand ayatollah's heart
and under president Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s was part of a three-man
delegation created to "thwart the cultural onslaught on the Islamic republic".
The other two - whom he has now way surpassed - were Saeed Emani (the deputy
minister of intelligence and security) and Baqer Zolqadr (the deputy commander
of the IRGC). Briefly, under Rafsanjani, he also held the post of minister of
culture and Islamic guidance, replacing Mohammad Khatami, who went on to become
Larijani ran for presidential office in 2005 and was defeated, mainly because
Khamenei decided to back Ahmadinejad and drown the campaign of
then-presidential candidate Rafsanjani. It was the wrong election, in the wrong
circumstances, and against the wrong people. He ranked sixth in 2005, with only
5.94% of the votes. In as much as Khamenei liked him, his chances of winning
were slim, compared to populist candidates like Ahmadinejad and powerful and
rich ones like Rafsanjani.
Ahmadinejad appointed him secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in
2005-2007. He was charged with delicate security issues, like Iran's nuclear
file, and talks with the European Union and the United Nations. He now called
for conservative dialogue with the West, and aimed at building bridges with the
Americans, contrary to the provocative statements of the president. Earlier,
when serving as the country's top nuclear negotiator, he proved himself as a
hardliner, once saying that EU incentives to Iran to give up its nuclear
program were like "exchanging a pearl for a candy bar".
Observers of Iran claim his resignation in 2007 as negotiator was in
disagreement with Ahmadinejad over the latter's often wild and provocative
statements, which cornered Iran into difficult situations that Larijani had a
hard time defending in the international community.
The two men differ in style, not in substance. Both want to continue to support
Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both want to pursue Iran's dream of nuclear power for
civilian use and refuse to grant concessions to the Americans, and both strive
to export the Islamic revolution outside its borders, to neighboring countries
Ahmadinejad, however, makes rash statements regarding the annihilation of
America - and Israel. Larijani, a more seasoned and wiser statesman, steers
clear of such controversial territory. When asked, Larijani once said,
"Ideologically, I have no differences with Ahmadinejad, but we have indeed
differences in style, approach and management."
When serving as director of broadcast, he launched two Arabic channels (one
radio and one television) to spread ideology to the Middle East, as part of
spreading the Islamic revolution something to which both he and Ahmadinejad are
In elections this year he ran for parliament and won as a deputy for the
religious city of Qum. From here he ran for internal elections, and got
Ahmadinejad's candidate, former speaker Gholamali Haddad-Adel, to step out of
the race, winning 232 votes out of the parliament's total of 290 seats. That
was seen as a bitter slap for the president, who couldn't even secure the
election of his man as speaker of parliament.
Talk within political circles in Iran echoed of how critical Larijani was
becoming of Ahmadinejad's policies. The talk was always private - never in
public. Speaking to parliament in his inauguration speech, Larijani sounded
like Ahmadinejad. He upheld his nation's right to develop nuclear technology.
He supported both Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza. He spoke with some venom against
Israel and the United States, and while he was addressing the Majlis, lawmakers
chanted "Death to America".
Within hours after his election as speaker, parliament's auditing office
revealed that US$35 billion in oil proceeds - nearly half of what the country
makes annually - had disappeared from the state treasury in 2007. The funds had
been misused or embezzled without parliament's knowledge. This was reported in
the Tehran-based Shabab News, which is close to Larijani.
There are two views on Larijani's ambitions. One says he is 100% going to be a
presidential candidate in 2009, with the full blacking of Khamenei, who has
completely lost faith in Ahmadinejad and will not back his bid for re-election.
Others, however, claim that Larijani won't venture into the position himself -
choosing one of his proteges instead. What is certain, however, is that without
the backing of Khamenei, and with the rising power of Larijani, neither the
current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, nor ex-president Khatami (both
of whom have their eyes on running in 2009) have a very high chance of
Michael Rubin, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute
think-tank, notes, "Diplomats may put Iran's nuclear program front and center,
but within the Iranian domestic debate, the issue is economy, economy,
Ahmadinejad has now started to use religious jargon to lift spirits, mainly in
reference to the Hidden Imam, sacred to Shi'ites. Clerics angrily told him to
avoid doing that and concentrate on what is going wrong inside Iran.
Although one of the world's biggest oil exporters, Iran does not have enough
refineries to meet its local demand for gasoline, for example. Under
Ahmadinejad, Iran imported more than 50% of its domestic consumption, at a cost
of $10 billion, then sold it to users at below-cost subsidized prices. Tehran
is trying to reduce that number at the expense of the average Iranian citizen
who has become accustomed to subsidized petroleum and heating fuel.
During the election campaign of 2005, Ahmadinejad promised to continue
providing gasoline at rock-bottom prices, but the government raised the price
by 25% in May 2007, although this was not enough to curb consumption.
On coming to power, Ahmadinejad promised his countrymen more money, better
security and an easier life. He promised to put revenue from petroleum on their
tables, and to fight unemployment and corruption. That is what got him voted
into power. It was the youth, the unemployed and the poor who voted for
Ahmadinejad, not because he was a product of the Islamic revolution (Islamic
credentials do not really count for a rising generation of young Iranians).
Yet unemployment under Ahmadinejad has reached a staggering 30%, while the
price of fruit and vegetables has tripled due to the increases in world food
prices. Housing prices have more than doubled since June 2006, although when
coming to power Ahmadinejad called for an increase in housing subsidies for
low-income families, accounting for roughly $1 billion. Inflation is reported
at anywhere between 14% and 25%. If the latter figure, put forth by some
economists, is correct, it would mean that Iran is in serious trouble, because
no matter how high the economic growth rate is, it can never reach 25%, which
Ahmadinejad had promised.
So confident of his economic measures was the Iranian leader that at one point,
he came out and spoke against birth control, saying that Iran could live with
another 50 million people - it currently stands at 70 million - because its
economy was healthy and on the right track. A recent poll showed that of 20,177
Iranians who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2005, 62.5% were reluctant to vote for
him again. The poll was conducted via the Internet by the Baztab News Agency.
Of those who did not vote for him in 2005, only 5.3% would do so in the next
The patronage of the grand ayatollah for the Iranian president is evaporating,
because of the reasons mentioned above. In addition to Larijani, who is a
president-in-waiting, other contenders are probably going to appear in the next
few months, in addition to Ahmadinejad, who will seek another round.
Other names include:
Ali Akbar Velayati. A foreign minister under Rafsanjani, Velayati
is close to Khamenei - as close if not closer than Larijani. At 62, the
statesman with a pediatrics degree from Johns Hopkins University in the US
served for 17 years as foreign minister. When Khamenei was president under
Khomeini, he was earmarked for the post of prime minister, but the decision was
vetoed by parliament.
He toyed with the idea of running in 2005, but backed down when it was clear
that Rafsanjani was running. After that, the grand ayatollah wanted to appoint
him vice president, to replace the colorless Parvis Dawoodi, and check the
powers of Ahmadinejad.
Mahmud Nahavandian. He is a US-educated economist and national
Mohammad Reza Aref. A Stanford-trained former vice president to
Mohammad Ali Najafi. A Massachusetts Institute of
Technology-trained mathematician who held the job of minister of education
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Mayor of Tehran.
Mohammad Khatami, an ex-president.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ex-president.
The Rafsanjani-backed candidates are likely to be vetoed for by the grand
ayatollah, and so are ex-presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. This makes the
stage clear for the speaker, Larijani, to march confidently towards the
presidential palace in 2009.