June 17, 2021 | Insight
Ali Larijani, Iran’s Rejected Hardliner
June 17, 2021 | Insight
Ali Larijani, Iran’s Rejected Hardliner
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
On May 15, Ali Larijani, the former speaker of Iran’s parliament, registered to run for president. Ten days later, the Guardian Council – an unelected, 12-member body that determines the eligibility of presidential candidates – announced that it approved seven of approximately 590 hopefuls who had registered to run, not including Larijani.
Initially, Larijani took the rejection in stride. “I have done my duty before God and the dear nation, and I am satisfied,” he wrote on Twitter on May 25. “Thank you to all those who expressed their gratitude and I hope you will participate in the elections for the promotion of an Islamic Iran.”
Yet now, Larijani says he wants answers. “I urge the esteemed Guardian Council … to formally, publicly and transparently provide all the reasons behind my disqualification,” he said in a tweet on June 12. A spokesman for the Guardian Council responded that Iranian law does not require the body to disclose its reasoning in public.
The council’s disqualification of Larijani, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, constitutes a singular humiliation for a man who has devoted his life to advancing the principles of the Islamic Revolution. While media reports often describe him as a “moderate” or as a “moderate conservative,” Larijani is anything but. Over the course of his career, he has repeatedly demonized the United States and Israel, denied the Holocaust, defended terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, vilified homosexuals, and insisted that Iran bears the right to maintain a robust uranium enrichment program akin to North Korea’s.
Larijani began his career as an intellectual, earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Western philosophy from the University of Tehran and writing books on the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Larijani then opted to serve in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for a decade. For some 30 years thereafter, he has occupied multiple senior positions in Iran’s government.
As minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1992 to 1994, Larijani played a key role in promoting the regime’s Islamist ideology – and in suppressing alternative views. The ministry forcefully vets books, museum exhibitions, television stations, music, concerts, the fashion industry, and theatrical performances, all of which require a permit to operate. Iranians who publicize their work without a license frequently face imprisonment and torture.
This experience prepared Larijani well for his next job: the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the country’s state-run media conglomerate, which holds a near-monopoly on Iran’s television and radio services. From 1994 to 2004, he presided over the broadcasting of regime propaganda denouncing the Islamic Republic’s many critics. One program in particular, Hoviyyat, Persian for “identity,” targeted progressive intellectuals and democracy activists, denouncing them as threats to Iran’s national and religious character. The broadcasts often served as the basis for the regime’s arrest and imprisonment of its opponents.
Similarly, in 2003, IRIB established two Arabic-language channels in an effort to export the regime’s revolutionary ideas. France banned one of them for airing antisemitic and pro-Hezbollah programming.
In 2005, Larijani conducted his first campaign for president, winning approval from the Guardian Council. But he received just 5.94 percent of the vote, putting him in sixth place in a field of seven candidates. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election, with 61.69 percent of the ballots.
Despite Larijani’s poor showing, Ahmadinejad gave him a critical position in the new government: chief nuclear negotiator. In this capacity, Larijani adopted an uncompromising approach, spurning repeated international demands that Tehran halt its enrichment of uranium. During Larijani’s three years in this job, the UN Security Council passed two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.
“I recommend once again that you pay attention to the conduct of North Korea,” Larijani said in 2005. “After two years of dealings with North Korea, what have you got? You have accepted North Korea’s nuclear technology in the field of uranium enrichment. So accept ours now. We have no problem. We don’t want anything else.”
Larijani repeatedly disparaged compromise. Any “concession on nuclear technology is tantamount to treason,” he famously declared in 2007. In another well-known avowal in 2004, Larijani contended that any Iranian halt of uranium enrichment in exchange for European concessions would be tantamount to “giving a pearl in exchange for candy.”
Between 2005 and 2007, Larijani served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s highest decision-making body on security-related issues. This role made him complicit in Tehran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons as well as its regional aggression, support for terrorism, and domestic repression.
From 2008 to 2020, Larijani served as speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s pseudo-democratic parliament, which holds elections every four years. As it does before presidential contests, the Guardian Council screens all parliamentary candidates to ensure their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. In the 2020 election, the council disqualified 7,296 hopefuls out of the more than 14,500 who registered to compete.
Yet Larijani has defended Iran’s government as fundamentally democratic. “Just take a look at the countries that have surrounded Iran,” he said in 2015, “and you will see that Iran is like an exception. It’s a democratic country, and the peoples’ voice and votes are respected.”
Larijani’s dubious claim is consistent with the inflammatory statements that he routinely issued as speaker of parliament.
In 2015, Larijani called America the “great Satan.” In 2013, he dubbed Israel the “Zionist plague.” In 2009, he asserted that there could “be different perspectives on the Holocaust,” including the question of whether the Nazis killed 6 million Jews.
Larijani has hailed Iran’s military support for the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran, he said in 2012, is “honored to provide the Palestinian people with military aid, while all Arabic countries do is hold meetings.” In 2008, in a comment directed at then-President-elect Barack Obama, Larijani said, “We are proud of supporting Hezbollah since they are defending their homeland and you are wrong in calling them terrorists.”
Larijani has also defended Iran’s persecution of the LGBTQ community. In response to the European Parliament’s passage of a resolution in 2014 that calls on Iran to halt its human rights abuses, including its discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, Larijani said the measure amounts to “interference in the democratic system in Iran, in [its] elections, in human rights [issues], and in deviant sexual ideas.”
Yet Larijani’s history of loyalty to the revolution proved insufficient for the Guardian Council to approve his bid for the presidency in 2021. While the reason for the council’s decision remains unclear, it may be that Larijani’s record of enforcing submission to the regime lags behind that of another candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, the first choice and confidant of Khamenei. As a prosecutor, as attorney general, and later as head of Iran’s judiciary, Raisi oversaw the imprisonment, torture, and execution of countless prisoners of conscience, including the 1988 massacre of thousands of political dissidents.
Khamenei likely wishes to see an overwhelming victory for Raisi, who now faces three other opponents, none with Raisi’s prominence. At the same time, as the regime faces increasing challenges to its legitimacy by a disaffected public angered by a cratering economy and Tehran’s repression, turnout will likely be low, thereby weakening the victor’s ability to claim a mandate. One recent poll projected a turnout of only 41 percent.
Still, Larijani opted to serve a regime whose institutions all must bend to the will of the supreme leader. He should not be surprised when Khamenei spurns the people who served him most sedulously.
Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Tzvi, the Iran Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_Iran, and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.