Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has issued a series of verbal attacks against some of the country’s most influential figures. 

Speaking at the Shah-Abdol-Azim holy shrine in Rey near Tehran on November 15, the former president accused Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and his brother, judiciary head Sadegh Larijani, of  corruption and abuse of power.

Ahmadinejad was at the shrine with three of his allies, who were key figures in his administration — Hamid Reza Baghaei, who was his Vice President for Executive Affairs, his one-time press advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr, and his former financial affairs director, Habibollah Joz-e Khorasani. The three men had taken sanctuary at the Shah-Abdol-Azim shrine in a bid to escape appearing in court, and as a protest against cases being brought against them in the first place. 

Taking sanctuary in a holy place to escape prosecution is a quaint recourse mostly associated with the 19th and early 20th century, when Iran lived under absolute monarchy and “due process of law” was an unknown concept. But, as the recent events show, it still happens today, and, if nothing else, has propaganda value, a way of demonstrating against perceived tyranny and injustice.

In his speech at the holy shrine, Ahmadinejad declared his opposition to the Larijani family — a third brother, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, heads the judiciary’s human rights council, and there are two other brothers and many family connections with power — and said it was important not to let them take control of the government. Considering that two of the Larijani brothers are already in two of the country’s most powerful positions, Ahmadinejad must have been warning of the brothers' chances of becoming president of the Islamic Republic and occupying the office of the Supreme Leader. In an earlier statement, Ahmadinejad had claimed that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani plans to run in the 2021 presidential election. A number of Ahmadinejad’s supporters believe that Sadegh Larijani hopes to inherit Ayatollah Khamenei’s job.

Ahmadinejad himself has little chance of either becoming the president of Iran (for a second time) or assuming the Supreme Leadership. The Guardian Council disqualified him from running as a candidate in the 2017 presidential election, and it does not appear that he has any chance of qualifying for future elections. He does not enjoy the backing of any organized political force and the military, especially the Revolutionary Guards, does not support him. His supporters do not control any influential media and he does not have enough personal wealth to push forward his agenda without ample additional support. 

His recent attacks, and his behavior over the last few years, can best be interpreted as the tactics of a proxy warrior, the moves of a small paramilitary force fighting on behalf of others who want to block the Larijani brothers from gaining political ground. These groups and individuals Ahmadinejad fights for would naturally be delighted if the quarrel continues, and especially if it intensifies.

Call for an Open Trial

One of Ahmadinejad’s key allies, Hamid Reza Baghaei, has been charged with financial malfeasance, which he is alleged to have carried out when he was vice president. The first two sessions of his trial took place in secret. In his November 15 speech, Ahmadinejad demanded that Baghaei’s trial be held in an open court. He accused the Iranian judiciary of being politically biased and lacking transparency, and that its chief aim was to present the Ahmadinejad administration as corrupt.

The former president quipped that when Baghaei declared he was “not a thief,” he was accused of insulting the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani — a joke at the expense of Larijani, whose private bank accounts have been fodder for sections of the media for some time, all of which have hinted that he is corrupt.

Ahmadinejad had further insults for the Larijani brothers. He said that they were not part of the “family of Islamic Revolution” and soon the Iranian public would realize this. He even claimed that they were “probably” not Iranian — exploiting a long-held claim presented by opponents of the Larijani family. The Larijanis’ father was an Iranian citizen, but both Ali and Sadegh were born in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, leading some of their enemies to say that they are not Iranians at all and are not entitled to the power they have. 

And the sniping and abuse went on. Ahmadinejad made further accusations, saying “all your family [members] are spies,” a direct retaliation against similar accusations launched against him and and his allies, which he denies. Ahmadinejad’s comments also reference media reports in October that Zahra Larijani, Sadegh Larijani’s daughter, has been charged with spying for England. Judiciary officials denied the reports but not before the story was widely circulated and made the subject of much discussion. Whether the story has any basis in the truth is irrelevant. Ahmadinejad could not resist using it.

“Over My Dead Body!”

The former president also claimed that, in bringing cases against his allies — a clear attempt to crack down on the political opponents of the Larijani family, he said — the judiciary had tried to present the normal duties of the government as criminal activity. He promised that this crackdown would be successful “over my dead body.” To give this credence, he added that he was willing to go to prison or even face death, but that he would not submit to injustice.

In fact, Ahmadinejad predicted that the same judicial authorities who have lashed out against his allies and supporters would soon face jail themselves, echoing an earlier claim by Baghaei.

The timing of Ahmadinejad’s attacks is interesting, coming just days after the devastating earthquake that led to more than 500 deaths, thousands of injuries, and massive damage to buildings across Kermanshah province. A large number of apartment blocks that collapsed or were badly damaged were relatively new buildings, built as part of a social housing program set out by Ahmadinejad when he was president. First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri confirmed this was the case, as reported on November 14. The quality of the housing has come under criticism since the blocks were built, along with accusations of corruption and political opportunism. So while Ahmadinejad is clearly angry by what he sees to be a Larijani takeover, he may have had other reasons to speak out now. He may not have any future in Iranian mainstream politics, but he has a reputation and allies to protect. 

Backlash to Come

Ahmadinejad’s fiery attacks will not go unanswered, and there are clear precedents for this. In the last months of his presidency, on February 3, 2013, Ahmadinejad presented a video before the Iranian parliament that appeared to show Fazel Larijani, one of the Larijani brothers, procuring bribes. In the video — secretly recorded by a government official close to Ahmadinejad — Fazel Larijani said that by using his connections with and influence on the speaker of the parliament and the judiciary chief, he was in a position to get things done. Ahmadinejad presented the video as proof that Larijani brothers were corrupt and were conspiring against his administration.

After the video was made public, Sadegh Larijani responded that he would follow Ayatollah Khamenei’s advice and remain silent. But a few days later, the Supreme Leader strongly condemned Ahmadinejad’s action, calling it “illegal and against sharia” — a condemnation that angered Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

This time, the situation is somewhat different, not least because Ahmadinejad is no longer president and has been pushed to the margins of Iranian politics. Although it is not yet clear whether the Supreme Leader will have the same reaction, Ahmadinejad’s sharp attacks against the heads of the judiciary and the legislative branch have intensified speculation and given rise to new expectations for fresh confrontations. If Khamenei does not lash out at Ahmadinejad, the Larijani brothers may well take it upon themselves to strike back. 

There are signs that the backlash has begun already. Just a day after his comments, pro-Ahmadinejad Telegram channels reported that the former president’s website and another website affiliated with him had been blocked [Radio Farda link in Persian]. 

The former president is well known for his tantrums, and for allowing them to feed into the wider political battlefield. In the past, he’s caused himself and those around him problems more than once. But those who have observed his actions throughout the years tend to wonder whether one day the damage will be so severe that he — and the agenda that he and his supporters champion — will not be able to recover. 

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