By Marsha B. Cohen (originally published on TehranBureau.com)
Perhaps it's the same video clip being broadcast over and over again, exaggerating the significance of a particular moment caught by a roving camera. But Ali Ardeshir Larijani, sitting immediately to the right of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's discourse during Friday prayers on June 19, looks uncomfortable, even unhappy. His eyes are downcast and his attention focuses on his prayer beads rather than on the Supreme Leader.
It was more than just a moment, says an Iranian-American who watched Khamenei's Friday sermon in full on YouTube. "Watching him closely, he couldn't wait the sermon to end."
Considered to be a conservative pragmatist rather than an ideologue, Larijani, Speaker of the Majlis (Iran's parliament) is an insider's insider within Iran's hardline establishment. He has has served in and survived numerous posts in a variety of political environments. Born in Najaf, Iraq in 1948, his father was the Grand Ayatollah Haj Mirja Hashem Amoli (1899-1993), a distinguished scholar and marja (religious guide with a significant following), and his father-in-law Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (1920-1979), a highly lecturer, scholar and author who was influential in shaping the Islamic ideology of the Iranian revolution.
Although he majored in Computer Science as a Sharif University undergraduate, Larijani pursued both an MA and a PhD in Western Philosophy from Tehran University, on the advice of Motahhari. Larijani is the author of four books on the renowned and still influential philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Larijani assumed a leadership role in the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. In the early 1990s, during Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's presidency, Larijani served as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance until 1994, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put him in charge of Iranian state radio and TV. While opening six new radio and five television stations in a decade, Larijani also attempted to limit foreign cultural influences, particularly on young Iranians, by reducing the number of imported programs broadcast on Iranian state television. Reformist critics in the Majlis complained the strategy would be counterproductive, encouraging Iranians to tune into foreign media sources for news and entertainment.
In 2004, Khamenei appointed Larijani to a three year term on Iran's Supreme National Security Council. A year later, he was made Secretary of the Council. Larijani also served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator until he resigned in October 2007. He insisted that "The national security doctrine has no place for an atomic bomb - we don't need such a thought and we have announced as much time and again." Nonetheless, Larijani was equally adamant in affirming Iran's right to be self-sufficient in nuclear technology - also the expressed position of all four candidates in the most recent presidential election - and insisting the Western powers were acting to their own detriment by defying "the will of the Iranian people," as he told Gareth Smyth in an interview in the Financial Times in early 2006:
We are focused on our own national capabilities. Go to the streets; ask people - university professors, laborers, government employees - their opinion about Iran's rights to nuclear technology. There is a national will over this. The West is making a mistake by putting itself against the national will. Europe could have lots of relations here. They currently, for example, have gas shortages in their cold weather and we could help them over this. Europe can also have investment in our oil sector. The West made a historical mistake in 1953 when it stood against the nationalization of oil - at that time the West stood against the national will. They should consider this historical experience. If they think any government in Iran could give up nuclear technology, they are mistaken. Look at the government of Mohammad Khatami - many of these nuclear activities began when he was president [1997-2005].
Since the election, Larijani has rarely been noted or quoted in the western press, except for an occasional sentence in the print media. Media attention has been directed primarily toward Rafsanjani as the man to watch in the current turmoil. As Speaker of the Majlis, Larijani immediately and repeatedly condemned the violence against the students at Teheran University on Monday night (June 15). The website of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) for the week of June 13-17 reported that the Larijani said he had visited some of the areas where students had been assaulted and asked what the "meaning" was of attacking students in their dormitories at 2:30 in the morning. He said that laws had to be observed, and that the Minister of the Interior must be held "accountable for such incidents." Larijani promised that the Majlis would "seriously investigate" such issues.
On Thursday, even CNN had taken note: "Speaker Ali Larijani blamed the Interior Ministry for the raid on the dorm and attacks on civilians." The article added that "Larijani's comments are seen as an unprecedented rebuke to Ahmadinejad, who has been taking heat from many religious conservatives who've knocked the president's criticism of protesters. And such criticism reflects an unprecedented public airing of a rift among ruling conservatives."
Also on Thursday, the Iranian newspaper Mardom Salari reported that the Majlis committee appointed by Larijani to "investigate and follow up the recent events and incidents" gave its preliminary findings during a five hour meeting attended by a number of senior officials. According to the committee's chair, Deputy Speaker Mohammad Hassan Abutorabi-Fard:
In the opinion of the committee, the point which must be given consideration is why plainclothes officers, without having any authorization from proper authorities, entered the students' dormitory. From the committee's viewpoint, (the activities of) these individuals are absolutely suspect. Their identities must be speedily exposed by the intelligence and security agencies. This move is also supported by the minister of science, research and technology as well as the chancellor of Tehran University, and they also have questions and serious doubts about this action (by plainclothes officers).
Abutorabi-Fard asserted that the elements responsible for causing disturbances in connection with the presidential election were still active, and they were supporters of neither Ahmadinejad or Mousavi, and went on to claim that "these elements were working for foreign powers and were guided and directed by satellite communications." In remarks to reporters, Hoseyn Eslami, the Majlis member for Saveh, said, "This part of Abutorabi-Fard's statement prompted protests by some MPs which ultimately resulted in creating an atmosphere of tension in the closed-door and informal session of the Majlis held yesterday morning," and a heated exchange between several Majlis members.
Larijani knows what it is like to lose a presidential election. In the first round in 2005, the Jame'e-ye Eslaami-e Mohandesin), a conservative political society to which both Ahmadinejad and Larijani belong, backed Larijani, not Ahmadinejad, the man he sat beside at Friday prayers. However, in the field of seven candidates who survived the vetting process, Larijani came in sixth, with fewer than 6% of the number of votes cast. Ahmadinejad, a largely unknown "dark horse" candidate, came in second, with 19.43% of the vote, to Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (21.3%), necessitating a runoff. Mehdi Karroubi, apparently a distant third in the 2009 election (the number of votes he received is as yet indeterminate), received 17.24% in 2005, making him a close third.(
During Khatami's presidency, Larijani accused reformists of being corrupt and of neglecting the economy. "You cannot create reforms with hungry people" he was quoted as telling an Iranian newspaper. "Some 75% of the Iranian people's demands are economic... and only 5% cultural and political." But he was also an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad's economic policies. Last October, Larijani declared, in a direct challenge to the president, that the Majlis would not pass any legislation that would contribute to inflation.
Seeing him in the mosque during Khamenei's sermon, his eyes focused on his prayer beads, one can't help wondering what Larijani is thinking. Is he perhaps wondering whether the 2005 vote also might have been rigged, manipulating him into the loser's slot? Or might his inner philosopher be thinking about Emmanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (Translation for non-philosophers: Base your actions exclusively to principles that you would want any other person - anywhere, anytime - to base their actions on.)
Speaking live on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 on Saturday (20 June), Larijani stated that "a majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different from what was officially announced." He criticized members of the country's Guardian Council, which must certify the election results, for openly favoring Ahmadinejad and campaigning for him. "Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate."
"The Guardian Council should use every possible means to build trust and convince the protesters that their complaints will be thoroughly looked into," Larijani declared. Expressing his concern that the Iranian people had lost their trust in the country's legal system, Larijani said it was up to the authorities to provide an atmosphere in which people feel free to express their opinions.
Press TV has just released a report quoting an interview with Larijani, in which he "urges 'politicians and candidates' to separate themselves from rioters and seek legal channels to prove their claims." Larijani accused some of the rioters of not having voted, and "taking advantage of the current mood by creating unrest and disrupting public security. They must be stopped."
Larijani "is the quintessential opportunist" cautions Iranian-born security expert Shahram Chubin, the Director of Research at the Geneva Centre for Security Studies in Switzerland. "Be prepared to see him on every side of a question, utterly without any scruple or principle, except self-advancement."
There's no question that Larijani is echoing the regime's claim that outside agitation is in some measure responsible for the protests. Today (June 21) Iran's Network 1 Television station said that Larijani had sharply criticized the United States and the United Kingdom for what he described as interference in Iran's domestic affairs. Broadcast live from the Majlis, the Speaker's words were conveyed by a correspondent, although the report did not actually show Larijani speaking.
As quoted by Press TV, Larijani criticized "certain foreign politicians," particularly Americans and British, for "making rude comments and trying to pose as supporters of human rights in Iran." He reiterated a litany of Iranian grievances against the U.S. and European powers:
"I must tell Obama and the British, French and German heads of state that you are more notorious than to interfere in Iran's affairs. The Iranian people know you too well," said Larijani.
"We remember how in times of the Shah, the government got orders from [former US president Jimmy] Carter to crack down on the people," he added.
"The French president must know that during the war, his country rented fighter jets out to Iraq. And Britain is more dishonorable than this, as its fingerprints can be found on all mischief that takes place in Iran," he said.
Nonetheless, even the government-funded Iranian international news network, which broadcasts in English on a round-the-clock basis, could not disguise Larijani's ambivalence about how the Iranian leadership has handled both the election and the violence that ensued in its aftermath. Larijani once again condemned the attacks on students at Teheran University, regardless of who carried them out. Larijani also affirmed that during the past few days hundreds of thousands of people had gone out into the streets and that those who are unhappy with the election results should be heeded, recommending fresh television debates to give "those who may have something to say" a chance to express them in fresh television debates.
While Larijani has stressed the importance of remaining within the legal boundaries of dissent - "Abiding by the law is in the interest of the entire nation, whether it be with regards to the elections or other issues" - he has also affirmed that "the voice of the people who have taken part in rallies must also be heard," referring to a point made by Khamenei during his Friday prayer sermon, and he declared that all the 40 million Iranians who voted are within the framework of the Revolution.
Chubin isn't buying it. Larijani, he says, is nothing more that "a slimy hardliner that is better at presenting himself to Westerners than Ahmadinejad, but otherwise does not differ much from him."
About the author: Dr. Marsha B. Cohen lives and writes in Miami, Florida, specializing in issues related to Iran, Israel and Israeli-Iranian Relations. Having taught for a decade in Florida International University's Dept. of International Relations, specializing in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, she is presently a consultant and lecturer for the University of Miami's MAIA program on topics related to the Middle East and the role of religion in world affairs.
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