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Larijani vs. Rouhani: Who Will Lead the Iranian Moderates?

 The victory of regime-faithful cleric Ebrahim Raisi in Iran’s 2021 presidential elections— a victory all but guaranteed by the elimination of every powerful rival for the presidency—has given rise to a fundamental right-ward shift in the Islamic Republic. Now, speculation has emerged of a broad alliance between moderate right-wingers and reformists that may transform the future of politically-ostracized elites.

A Broken Opposition

After the sudden death of influential cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—widely recognized as the spiritual father of moderates and unifier of dissidents in Iran—in 2017, reformist and moderate factions were left without a central figure to rally behind. But who could replace Rafsanjani in today’s political climate? Some favor former president Hassan Rouhani, citing his ascent to the presidency in 2013 and his 2017 reelection victory, both of which benefited from overt support from Rafsanjani and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Others are set on former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, whom they view as a more moderate and unifying presence.

After ending his second and final constitutionally-authorized term in August 2021, the 73-year-old Rouhani chose to remain silent in the face of strong criticism, even derision, from his hardline rivals. Certain sections of revolutionary MPs even called for his prosecution.

As a sign of conservative discontent with the former president, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused to name Rouhani to the top arbitration body Expediency Council, traditionally accorded to former chief executives. This appeared to confirm rumors among political pundits that Rouhani had been pushed out of the mainstream political scene for good. Some even speculated that Rouhani would grow into an opposition leader in the Islamic Republic.

Nearly three months after losing power, Rouhani broke his silence in October 2021, tweeting against the radical Taliban’s renewed insurgency in Afghanistan and ensuing control of that country. Rouhani went on to tweet on various occasions and attended political and religious events over the past months, including several meetings between Ayatollah Khamenei and top officials, to which Khatami and his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remain uninvited. Rouhani also held a private meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei in October. Though the substance of the meeting remains a mystery, just the fact that the tête-à-tête took place caught hardline conservatives by surprise.

Earlier this year, Rouhani also attended a two-day meeting of the Assembly of Experts, a senior clerical body that is in charge of supervising and electing the Supreme Leader. Rouhani’s attendance appeared even more remarkable because he had not sat in such a meeting in over five years. Despite leaving office, the former president, who has also recently met several times with his former ministers, went even further by sending a Persian New Year message calling for the necessity to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1. Rouhani had long championed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran.

Perhaps among Rouhani’s most important actions in recent months was his meeting with Ali Larijani, a philosopher-cum-politician and former nuclear negotiator. A prominent figure in the traditional conservative camp, Larijani was barred from running for the 2021 presidential election by the powerful electoral watchdog Guardian Council despite having already served as a  three-time parliament speaker and two-time director of state radio and television. The Guardian Council’s decision came as a shock to many, as the supreme leader himself had named Larijani to head the state radio and television services.

His criticism of the Rouhani administration’s policies aside, the conservative-minded Larijani joined forces with the reformists to bring the 2015 nuclear deal to fruition. As speaker of parliament, Larijani resisted attempts by some MPs to block the JCPOA or impeach some ministers of the Rouhani administration.

Moderates Pin Hopes on Failed Promises

The 2021 disqualification of Larijani, whom some believe would have most likely defeated Raisi, provoked denunciation from opposition forces within Iran. Nevertheless, it did not spell the end of Larijani’s political campaign. After Raisi took office, Larijani pressed the Guardian Council to release its reasons for his rejection. That was the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that the Guardian Council appeared constrained to provide a disqualified hopeful with such confidential reasons. After the media leaked the Guardian Council’s confidential letter to Larijani, he offered a 30-page response to challenge the Guardian Council’s reasoning and highlight its “biased” dismissal of potential candidates for the presidency. This public rupture between a powerful political figure and the Islamic Republic’s electoral watchdog produced a wave of criticism against the state.

The 64-year-old Larijani, who has since resumed teaching philosophy at university, has sent widely reported messages, among them warnings against the regime’s invasion of citizens’ privacy. That has helped him paint a populist and critical image of himself vis-à-vis the regime while remaining faithful to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

It is important to keep in mind that Rouhani and Larijani both owe their political futures to the behavior of the hardline conservatives currently in power. Current developments indicate that even conservative factions remain critical of the Raisi administration and see little progress on economic issues. Despite the government’s upbeat slogans and promises of economic recovery, Iran still faces rampant inflation and currency depreciation. An opinion poll conducted by Imam Sadeq University – close to conservative factions – shows that people hold little hope of any economic recovery over the coming four years.

Naturally, as the policies of the revolutionary conservative-dominated administration and parliament fail to show relief, Rouhani and his allies will find more ammunition with which to mount a future political challenge. Until the next elections, moderates and reformists will focus their strategy on avoiding any direct confrontation with those currently in power. These groups must instead work to stay politically relevant, lest they lose any leverage they may have over the current administration.

Of course, the political rivals of Rouhani and Larijani have not rested on their oars. Fars news agency, affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), ran a commentary on the pair’s meetings with top reformists and conservatives previously driven out of politics, saying the two aimed to create an alliance between Rouhani and Larijani with a view to “strengthening bipolarism within the establishment.” In other words, the revolutionary factions have recognized the attempts by the two politicians to establish a united political front in opposition to the Raisi administration and present themselves as an alternative. Whether Rouhani and Larijani can muster the capacity to form a sufficiently strong opposition against the executive branch and make a comeback bid, however, remains untested. What’s more, the perceived failures of the Rouhani administration may prove too great an obstacle to overcome.

Rouhani’s two successive terms in office, which began on the platform of “prudence and hope,”, ended in a “tragedy of hope” in the face of numerous crises. At the end of Rouhani’s time in power, his failure to overcome unprecedented internal and external pressure from U.S. sanctions, as well as his failure to revive the JCPOA after the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, demonstrated his impotence. His conservative rivals also did whatever they could to undermine his efforts. These factors, along with ill-conceived economic policies and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, doomed “the unluckiest post-Islamic Revolution Iranian administration.”

All of these issues caused growing societal discontent and disillusionment with the performance of the Rouhani administration. The political elite also turned on the former president, exacerbating the strong opposition by hardliners and the “deep state.” Many believe that Rouhani lacks the spirit and capacity to form an alliance between ideologically disparate factions in Iran. Indeed, even in his last years in office, Rouhani routinely distanced himself from the influential reformists and figures who had largely contributed to his election win. Seen as an act of political betrayal, many reformists transformed overnight into fierce critics of the former president. Therefore, in the best-case scenario, his record and political realities indicate he may, at best, only remain an influential figure within the moderate camp.

Can Larijani Bridge the Divide?

Ali Larijani seems a totally different political figure. Powerful hardliners drove him out of the electoral race in a move reminiscent of the disqualification of Rafsanjani in the 2013 presidential vote. However, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed him to the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, a powerful policymaking body, immediately after the last presidential election. Moreover, Larijani, who has long served in executive and legislative posts, has a reputation as a moderate and mild-mannered figure and maintains good ties with influential conservative factions. As speaker of parliament, he proved his dexterity in mobilizing lawmakers. Larijani also has significant foreign policy credentials; he led Iran’s nuclear dossier in the 2000s when he succeeded Rouhani as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. All these qualities could provide a significant boost to Larijani’s legitimacy as a potential unifier within the opposition camps.

Despite such auspicious signs, it remains to be seen if Larijani would be able to win the battle for public opinion, let alone overcome the systemic obstacles to his personal political advancement. Larijani’s criticism of the top electoral watchdog, in an attempt to preserve his bid for the presidency, may complicate any future attempt to run for office. Larijani also seems intent on bringing together a broad spectrum of support composed of diverse political forces. This nascent coalition of reformists, moderates, and traditional conservatives will inevitably lack the political cohesion required to make a strong bid in the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

Larijani’s recent meetings with influential reformists and conservatives like Khatami and Rouhani, former speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, former vice president Es’haq Jahangiri, and influential conservative ideologue and his former aide Mohammad Reza Bahonar demonstrate the immensity of this challenge. As ever, hardline media have described Larijani’s renewed effort as a “big gamble” on the grounds that he runs the political risk of losing the Islamic regime’s trust and reformist support.

In the meantime, the hardcore forces in the Islamic establishment will not stay idle as the battle rages. They will almost surely plan how to neutralize powerful political rivals, sideline their efforts and dislodge them from power. What is clear is that the Raisi administration currently enjoys unbeatable support from all judicial, political, and unelected bodies. In this respect, nobody can say for sure what strategy Larijani or Rouhani have up their sleeves, or whether they are capable of unifying the moderates and reformists.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.

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