Fair-Haired Boy of the Conservatives
On the third of Muharram in the year 2000, as Reformists basked in what seemed to be undying power and popular support (they just had nailed a decisive victory in the six parliamentary election), the state-run TV staggered its audience by displaying a video of a young woman dancing among the attendees of an overseas conference—she was donning a dress that unquestionably defied the codes of decency in Iran. The video was from the infamous Berlin Conference -held ten days earlier by the Heinrich Boll Foundation—and hosted a wide spectrum of Iran-based political activists and intellectuals. Aptly aired, with religious sentiments at their peak during the holy month of Muharram, the clip-- claimed by Reformists to have been manipulatively edited to create a wrong perception-- was the apogee of a concatenation of media attacks on the Reformist camp. Ten years later, the mastermind of the ploy, Ali Larijani, was pilloried by the hardcore Principlist media following the disputed 2009 presidential election since -despite his delayed denial- he was known as the man who “lured Mousavi into the delusion of winning the election” with his premature call to congratulate the Green candidate on the evening of election day.
Many find Ali Larijani a tough person to love. The gravelly-voiced speaker of Majles was born in the holy Shi’a city of Najaf, Iraq, where his father, Mirza Hashem Amoli –a renowned ayatollah, studied theology in the city’s millennium-old seminary. Larijani obtained his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the prestigious Sharif University and later obtained a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Tehran. When twenty, following a clerical tradition, he intra-married with the daughter of a renowned ayatollah, Morteza Motahhari. In 1992, Larijani was appointed as minister of culture in Hashemi Rafsanjani’s first administration-- after Mohammad Khatami resigned from the position under pressure for the right wing camp for his supposedly ‘liberal’ cultural policies.
One year later, he received the influential position of the presidency of IRIB –Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting-- from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution. However impressive Larijani’s administrative record in the office may have been –he turned a small-sized broadcasting organization into a media leviathan- his political résumé is full of flaws in the eyes of his critics, as both secular and religious intellectuals received a fair dose of vitriol through television during his administration, and his organization’s coverage of the Reformist President was at times so disparaging that even a senior cleric like Makarem Shirazi complained about it. Recovering from the shock of Khatami's inconceivable victory in the 1997 presidential election (which brought the Reformist president a shower of lavish titles on TV for a couple of weeks –Haj Doctor Seyyed Mohammad Khatami), Larijani calibrated the corporation to undermine the Reformist camp, in which the Berlin Conference video was just a teaser. Those were the days for Ali Larijani, the fair-haired boy of the Conservatives, whose cannon relentlessly fired at the Reformists.
After serving two five-year tenures at IRIB, Larijani geared up his campaign for the presidency of the Islamic Republic, as the Reformists’ decline –with two back-to-back defeats in the city councils and parliamentary elections-- had brought hope to the right to seize an office they thought their own eight years earlier. Nonetheless, he was not the only Conservative vying for the post. Along with him were former FM Ali-Akbar Velayati, Ahmad Tavakkoli, former chief police commander Baqer Qalibaf, Mohsen Rezaei, and –guess who- the much lesser known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all striving to represent the Conservatives (then taking the title Principlists) in the election. All the endeavors of the Conservatives’ Coordination Council –headed by Akbar Nategh Nouri- to introduce a single candidate for the elections bore no fruit: Nategh himself was a proponent of Ali-Akbar Velayati, while the Conservative party Mo’talefeh supported Ali Larijani. The more radical factions of the camp backed Baqer Qalibaf. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all the while, had shunned the council. Larijani was ultimately introduced as the Council’s candidate, but that did not stop Qalibaf, Rezaee and Ahmadinejad in running in the elections. The results of the presidential poll nonetheless came as an embarrassment for the council, as Ali Larijani received less than 2 million votes, with more than one-fourth of his votes coming from his home province of Mazandaran.
As a consolation prize, Larijani was designated as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, replacing the cleric Hassan Rowhani whom he had frequently criticized for the Sa’dabad nuclear deal with the European trio (Germany, Britain and France), describing it as “trading a pearl for a lollipop.” Larijani’s chairmanship over the council was short-lived however, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not relish the idea of a powerful politician following an independent line in nuclear talks –his own favorite diplomatic subject- without having the president’s say considered. For the second time, Ahmadinejad sideline Larijani, and replaced him with Saeed Jalili.
Cut for senior positions, Ali Larijani headed for parliament at this time. Nominated from Qom, where he enjoyed the support of ayatollahs because of his family background, Larijani entered the eighth parliament in 2008, and started another round of his battle with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the position of the parliament’s speaker. The president’s disposition to bypass rules and regulations, and his ceaseless complaints about the parliament throwing a monkey wrench into his work sparked off frequent verbal fights-- at one point compelling Larijani to use rare biting language, saying that the president’s letter of objection on 2009-2010 budget regulation “is more like a joke.” Larijani attracted serious attacks from pro-Ahmadinejad politicians in the months leading to the 2009 presidential election, as he had thwarted efforts to officially endorse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Majles’ Principlist bloc candidate.
In the wake of the 2009 presidential elections, which created the largest post-Revolution rift between Iranian political camps, Larijani remained reserved, and at times implying a tilt towards the Greens. He made frequent calls for reconciliation and moderation, promised to follow the cases of abuses against the protestors, called on the Basij and police forces to be kinder towards citizens and defended Hashemi Rafsanjani, all of which earned him the epithet “imperceptive elite”, a term first used by the Supreme Leader to describe high-profile politicians of the Islamic Republic who remained silent during the time of post-election Fetneh. Nonetheless, as the Green Movement gradually lost stamina, Larijani’s support phased out. He criticized the slogans of “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon” chanted in protest during the 2009 Qods Day official commemorations, strongly criticized the 25th of Bahman protests of 2010 which led to Mousavi and Karroubi’s house arrest, and after the tumult died down, dared to speak of the Fetneh, in which he, at least according to hardliners, did not play a productive role.