In the latest in a series of clashes between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s powerful Larijani brothers, Sadegh Larijani has revealed that the former president had taken steps to implicate his daughter in an espionage plot — and fought back.
The Larijani brothers face accusations of illegal activity and corruption in three separate and very different cases — and the cases have been raised in public and in the media more regularly in recent months, led in part by Ahmadinejad. And although the brothers have substantial political weight, these attacks have taken a toll on the influential family’s public image.
In an address to university students, the Iranian Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani said that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had asked Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran [Persian link], for information regarding rumors of espionage charges against Larijani’s daughter Zahra. It was a somewhat peculiar subject matter to raise with a student audience.
When Shamkhani told Ahmadinejad there was no truth to the rumors, the former president told him: “then you don’t know. Zahra Larijani has been arrested and we even know her place of detention.”
In September 2017, the website Amad News reported: “Zahra Ardeshir Larijani, daughter of Sadegh Amoli Larijani, has been accused of espionage for the West and a ‘top secret dossier’ has been filed for her.” And, on October 1, the same website claimed: “After Zahra Larijani’s espionage for the British Embassy in Iran was discovered, one of the Supreme Leader’s aides, Vahid Haghanian, directly ordered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence apparatus to arrest her.”
Almost immediately after the announcement, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stepped in and categorically denied that any member of the Larijani family was under arrest. But in his long and ongoing feud with the influential Larijani brothers — Judiciary Chief Sadegh, Speaker of Parliament Ali, Mohammad Javad, who heads the judiciary’s human rights council, and two other brothers — Ahmadinejad has refused to let the claims go.
What makes Sadegh Larijani’s account particularly interesting is that it shows that Ahmadinejad has not only attacked the Larijanis in public and in the media, he has also extended his attacks, seeking out and addressing Islamic Republic officials at the highest levels.
Ahmadinejad the “Seditionist”
Sadegh Larijani, however, has retaliated. He accused Ahmadinejad of being a “seditionist” — a label usually reserved for reformist supporters of the Green Movement —after Ahmadinejad voiced support for some of his closest allies and their publicity stunt to avoid prosecution. In November, Hamid Reza Baghaei, who was Ahmadinejad’s Vice President for Executive Affairs, his one-time press advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr, and his former financial affairs director, Habibollah Joz-e Khorasani, sought sanctuary in holy shrine near Tehran to escape appearing in court, and as a protest against being under investigation in the first place.
And Larijani was sure to point out another Ahmadinejad attack against another of his brothers. 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 procuring bribes. The chief of judiciary quoted the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who a few days later strongly condemned Ahmadinejad’s action, calling it “illegal, immoral and against sharia”.
“He Doesn’t Dare!”
On November 24, Ahmadinejad said in a video interview that the Iranian judiciary was responsible for the death of Sattar Beheshti, the blogger who died in prison four days after he was arrested in 2012, reportedly after suffering torture. Ahmadinejad said that at the time, he got into a shouting match with Larijani over Beheshti’s death. But Larijani refuted this account. “He does not dare to shout at me,” Larijani told the student group.
In another part of his speech, Larijani also implicitly accused Ahmadinejad of supporting Babak Zanjani, the billionaire sanctions-breaker who is in jail and has been sentenced to death.
Sadegh Larijani consistently tries to project an image of authority, and has a reputation for being short-tempered, arrogant, obstinate, and for not mincing his words. He does not hesitate to tear into his competitors. So if he stopped short of threatening Ahmadinejad explicitly in his recent speech, it must be an act of political expediency, and he could be responding to advice from Ayatollah Khamenei.
But it could also be due to the fact that Larijani has more specific interests in mind. If the feud with Ahmadinejad is prolonged, there are a total of three cases that could make the Larijanis vulnerable.
The first is the rumor about Sadegh Larijani’s daughter being involved in espionage, a case that remains mysterious. The second case concerns Mohammad Javad Larijani, who farmers in Varamin, near Tehran, accuse of land grab and corrupt deals. And the third, of course, is the 2012 video that Ahmadinejad presented to the parliament to prove that Mohammad Javad was procuring bribes.
The public has responded to all three cases extremely negatively, and has not been convinced by judiciary officials’ defective and vague explanations. The more these cases are discussed in public, the more they sour the political climate around the Larijani brothers. Following Sadegh Larijani’s speech, a group of students from Sharif University staged a protest calling for him to be dismissed. If nothing else, the chants show that judiciary officials have not been able to convince everyone that there is nothing to the rumors and charges.
And the judiciary officials have not learned from their past mistakes either. For instance, in his speech to students, Sadegh Larijani offered an explanation concerning the case against his brother over corrupt land deals. He said the court had issued its final verdict and that the verdict went partially in the plaintiffs’ favor: Mohammad Javad Larijani has been found guilty of at least some of the charges. But Sadegh Larijani also said that he did not have the full information about the details of the verdict. With this statement, the judiciary chief obviously decided to allow the ambiguity around the case continue.
In a recent statement, Ahmadinejad and his allies have also talked about irregularities in a deal to import medicine — most likely a veiled reference to Dr. Bagher Larijani, who is Deputy Health Minister for Medical Education. Here it is clear that Ahmadinejad and his cronies are doing everything they can to prolong the feud and introduce new charges.
The other possibility is that, in their bargaining and vacillations over what to do about Ahmadinejad, Sadegh Larijani and Ayatollah Khamenei have yet to reach a deal. But the judiciary chief’s insistence on pursuing judicial cases against Ahmadinejad lieutenants, as well as his jabs at the former president, show that, for all his efforts, Ahmadinejad’s attempts to divert public attention away from himsefl and to have the cases against him dismissed have largely failed.
Before the recent scandals, one judiciary spokesman had invited people to be “patient” when it came to Ahmadinejad, implying that measures to deal with him are going on behind the scenes. Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former member of the parliament, said recently that Ahmadinejad and his two allies — Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Hamid Baghaei — planned to get arrested so that they could tarnish the regime. And Mohsen Rafighdoost, a former Revolutionary Guards officer and a principlist politician, said that the judiciary was finalizing the case against Ahmadinejad. “God willing,” he said, “They will deal with him soon enough.”
Sadegh Larijani’s recent behavior gives credence to this view. The judiciary chief is directly involved in preparing the case against Ahmadinejad but tries, as best as he can, to avoid ugly public battles. Instead, he has resorted to the court and to the statements by the Supreme Leader in order to reach a consensus with other parts of the regime before he delivers Ahmadinejad the coup de grâce. Until then, the fight will continue, both in public and behind closed doors. Like Sadegh Larijani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is short-tempered, obstinate and refuses to be mild when dealing with hostilities. However, it appears that Sadegh Larijani is practicing restraint for the moment, part of his overall strategy to rally his resources and move toward an endgame, which at this point has yet to be revealed.