Larijani-gate: The Islamic Republic’s bitter political infighting explodes in tragicomedy manner

On 3 February 2013, one of the most spectacular political events in the Islamic Republic’s 34 year history took place on the floor of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. For the third time in the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration’s tenure, the Majlis impeached a sitting Cabinet-level minister as a direct political attack against the outgoing president. In response, Ahmadinejad played segments of a video where parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani’s younger brother was asking one of the president’s subordinates, the notorious former senior judiciary official Saeed Mortazavi, to engage in corruption. Soon after the Judiciary, headed by the parliamentary speaker’s older brother Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, arrested Mortazavi. On the tarmac before his flight to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Ahmadinejad attacked the Judiciary saying that it should serve that people rather than the Larijani family. The Mortazivi-Larijani corruption video is now on YouTube.

We have followed for some time now the increasingly acrimonious debates within the Islamic Republic’s ruling political current, the Principalists. With the marginalization of non-Principalist political currents such as the Centrists, Reformists, and the Green Movement, we highlighted the likelihood that divisions within Principalists would become more apparent. There now appears to be a three-way fight between the leading currents within the Principalists, including the Neo-Principalists, Ahmadinejad-Mashaei current, and Traditional Principalists. The disputes between the latter two currents, headed by Ahmadinejad and Larijani respectively, has been the most public and after last Sunday the most embarrassing for the regime. We delve deeper into “Larijani-gate” to better understand the implications of this tragicomic development for Iran’s domestic politics, beginning with Saeed Mortazavi.

Who is Saeed Mortazavi?

Born and raised in Yazd, Mortazavi moved to Tehran to pursue a career in the judicial branch of the Iranian government, where he rose quickly. Before long, he gained a reputation as a dogged persecutor of the regime’s critics, including student and women activists, in the courtroom and became infamous for his brutality in the interrogation chamber. In 2000 when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that “some newspapers have become bases for enemies”, Mortazavi was the judge in the press court responsible for the closure of 18 newspapers in a single day.

He first gained international attention in 2003 when a Majlis committee found him to be the main person responsible in the suspicious death of Iranian-Canadian photo journalist Zahra Kazemi in Evin Prison. As chief prosecutor of Tehran during the 2009-2011 Green Movement demonstrations, Mortazavi was responsible for Kahrizak prison where demonstrators were held in very harsh conditions, brutally tortured, and raped. The Kahrizak fiasco cost the lives of at least four male demonstrators and caused embarrassment for Khamenei and the regime, leading to the forced departure of Mortazavi from the Judiciary.

During his second term (2009-2013), Ahmadinejad decided to bring Mortazavi into his administration. Consequently, he was appointed chief of the headquarters responsible for combating commodities and foreign exchange smuggling and, more critically, was later promoted to chief of the Social Security Organization (SSO). The SSO, which is under the supervision of the ministry of labour, is one of the largest economic entities in Iran. This appointment placed Mortazavi in a powerful position, and became another bone of contention between the Ahmadinejad administration and Majlis which threatened to impeach the labour minister, who is formally Mortazavi’s boss, if the new SSO chief was not removed from his position. When Ahmadinejad and his labour minister did not blink, parliament went ahead with the impeachment, setting the stage for Ahmadinejad to publicly air the Larijani-Mortazavi corruption video.

The Larijani-Mortazavi corruption video

The video, which is at some points inaudible, shows the the youngest of the five Larijani brothers, Fazel Larijani, speaking with Mortazavi about ways in which he can reduce the political pressure on himself coming from the Majlis and Judiciary. Fazel, who is currently one of the heads of the Azad University branch in Amol, tells Mortazavi that he should recommend him as an engineering consultant with a high salary to an unnamed private company which has contracts with the SSO. He also asks that the private company purchase a 600-700 square meter home in the name of one of his family members. Fazel insists that this will not appear suspicious because the family member has recently lost a father, and the purchase of the home will be viewed as coming from the inheritance.

Quid pro quo, Fazel promises to use his influence with his older brothers Ali and Sadegh, who head the Majlis and Judiciary respectively, to relieve the political pressure on Mortazavi. He will also use his influence to help the unnamed company with administrative red-tape and other issues as well. Fazel confides in Mortazavi, who has been secretly filming him the whole time, that there is no money in academia and that he thinks with a little support he will make a successful businessman.

This is not the first skirmish in the political battle between Ahmadinejad and the Larijani clan. The latter have persistently attacked the president from their perch in the Majlis and Judiciary, threatening impeachment, blocking his policies, and arresting his allies. Ahmadinejad, for his part, is believed to be behind attacks on other members of the Larijani family and their supporters. Recently circulated documents show Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the oldest Larijani brother who is currently head of the human rights council of the Judiciary, using his government connections to purchase land below market rates at a time when housing prices and rents are rising for ordinary Iranians. Ahmadinejad may also have removed Health and Medical Education Minister Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi because of her close ties to Bagher Larijani, the second youngest Larijani brother, who is a medical professor at the University of Tehran Medical School.

Fallout from Larijani-gate

While Iranians are aware of the profound corruption that happens behind the scenes in the Islamic Republic, this is one of the first times that there is solid evidence that shows a close family member of very senior political figures actively involved in it. The political fallout from the release of the tape is bound to be significant, especially in the short-term. Heads will roll and public perception toward the regime is bound to turn more sour.

Just a few months ago Khamenei had compared public airing of the regime’s dirty laundry as tantamount to an act of “treason”, which in the Islamic Republic’s political and religious discourse is viewed as crime worthy of the highest penalty. Although Khamenei has yet to make a public statement on the matter, one can only ponder his rage at being ignored by two of his most senior deputies. As usual, Kayhan Editor-in-Chief Hossein Shariatmadari acted as the supreme leader’s unofficial voice.

In his editorial, written immediately after the impeachment of the labour minister and airing of the video, Shariatmadari called Sunday’s scandalous turn of events a collaboration between deviant current and sedition. In the Islamic Republic’s political lexicon the latter is code for the 2009-2011 Green Movement while the former is code for the president’s controversial Chief-of-Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his supporters. Shariatmadari rebuked the Majlis for impeaching the labour minister, saying that it had done so when it was not expedient because of the influence of the sedition. He may have implicitly been criticizing Traditional Principalists like Ali Motahari who are very anti-Ahmadinejad and have been moderate voices when it comes to the Reformist and Green Movement. However he also criticized the president and his allies, saying that the hand of the deviant current could be seen behind the airing of the video. In fact, many see the conflict which broke out between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei over the former’s removal of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi in 2011 as having to do with the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei currents attempt to gather compromising evidence against senior regime officials.

Although Mortazavi was arrested and held in Evin prison on Monday evening, he was released on Wednesday morning, with the president promising retribution for this when he returns to Iran from his Cairo trip. This huge political scandal is still unfolding, and as new developments occur we will provide updates.