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Corruption Probe Or Power Struggle? Iran's Former Judiciary Chief Comes Under Attack

Former judiciary head Sadegh Amoli Larijani has come under increased pressure, which includes corruption accusations against him. (file photo)

As head of Iran's judiciary for a decade, Sadegh Amoli Larijani held significant power to use the country's legal system to crack down on dissenters, political opponents, and others.

Within months of a new judiciary chief's appointment in March, Larijani's political enemies looked to have been hitting back.

One of the most prominent members of an influential political family, Larijani, 58, has come under increased pressure with the arrest of a former deputy, Akbar Tabari; unprecedented attacks on state-controlled television, where he's been accused of corruption and attempts to silence journalists; and criticism by a senior cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former judiciary head who has accused Larijani of misconduct and inefficiency.

The Larijanis have faced corruption accusations in the past, including by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who fell from grace following tensions with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and some of whose aides were jailed during Larijani's tenure.

The attacks hint at a battle for power and succession in the Islamic republic that has spilled into the open.

Tipped as a potential successor to the 80-year-old Khamenei, who underwent prostrate surgery in 2014 amid long-standing rumors that he has prostate cancer, Larijani and his brothers still hold key posts.

Some analysts have suggested that the attacks are aimed at diminishing Larijani's chances of becoming supreme leader, while others suggest that Larijani's family, namely his older brother pragmatic parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who's been supportive of President Hassan Rohani's diplomatic efforts, may be the principal targets.

"Nevertheless, whether he is the principle target or not, it is clear that the wider Larijani family will be damaged by the accusations and any political aspirations any of them had, have now been made less possible," Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told RFE/RL.

'Untrue And Disrespectful'

Media have suggested that an attempt at eliminating the Larijanis is under way.

"The weakening of the position of the former judiciary chief...will not only affect the political future of Sadegh Larijani but will also impact Ali Larijani, who appears to be one of the most likely contenders for the 2021 presidential vote," the reformist Shargh daily said in a recent report.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (file photo)
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (file photo)

Iran's judiciary on August 21 dismissed claims that appeared on social media that Larijani's other brother, Mohamamd Javad Larijani, had resigned as head of the judiciary's human rights commission.

Larijani, who was appointed by Khamenei in December to head the influential Expediency Council, has said the attacks against him are part of "a pre-planned scenario" to tarnish his image.

In a letter to Ayatollah Yazdi that was published on August 19, Larijani said that the "games" by state TV and other bodies had prompted him to break his silence.

"Unfortunately, you've recently made comments that are not only untrue and disrespectful, but they're rooted in the same issues," Larijani wrote in the letter, which was published by Iranian media.

Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with overseeing the supreme leader's work and choosing future supreme leaders, had previously accused Larijani of threatening to move to his Iraqi birthplace of Najaf.

"He says, 'If you don't do this, I'll go to Najaf.' Well, go. Your presence in Qom has not been very effective," Yazdi was quoted as having said of Larijani at a recent meeting with officials from the paramilitary Basij force.

"A chief of staff who held an important post for 10 years was arrested. He protests at the reason for his arrest. They built a palace in the name of the seminary. Where did you get [the money]?" Yazdi was quoted as having said in the recent meeting.

Larijani responded by saying that he hasn't made such threats.

"If the deputy executive of the judiciary has committed a crime or corruption, action against him and a fair procedure is the responsibility of the judicial system, and there's no doubt that I'm not in favor of an exception in this case," Larijani said.

"My impact is that I've taught for years in the seminary and university and I've produced works.... What have you done in the area of scientific research?" he added.

He also accused Yazdi of making uninformed comments and baseless accusations while failing to provide any proof.

Damaging Information?

U.S.-based Iranian analyst Ali Afshari said he thinks the attacks against Larijani have a green light from Khamenei, Iran's highest authority. Earlier this month, reports claimed Larijani had indeed written to Khamenei and threatened to resign from his posts and move to Najaf. The reports were quickly dismissed by the Expediency Council.

"These attacks are aimed as a warning to Larijani not to resist or complain about Khamenei's decisions," Afshari said, adding that Larijani's enemies within the hard-line camp of the Iranian establishment are behind the assault.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)

According to reports, Larijani claimed in his letter to Yazdi that he possessed damaging information about senior officials and their offspring.

"They claim that Larijani did not take action against corruption. But in reality the issue is that [some people] have been unhappy with Larijani's work as judiciary chief, he didn't meet their expectations, and he didn't back their attacks on his brother Ali Larijani," Afshari told RFE/RL.

Afshari added that current judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, also tipped as a contender for the post of supreme leader, could benefit from a weakened Larijani.

As judiciary chief, Raisi, who was defeated by Rohani in the 2016 presidential election, has vowed to fight corruption. The head of the judiciary's intelligence and security department, Ali Abdollahi, said on August 15 that the "cleansing" within the judiciary is taking place on orders from Khamenei.

Both Raisi and Larijani are accused by international rights groups of serious human rights abuses.

Afshari said that, while Khamenei appears to be tilting toward Raisi, whose profile has risen in recent years, it is too soon to predict Larijani's fate.

Current judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi (left) with Sadegh Amoli Larijani earlier this year.
Current judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi (left) with Sadegh Amoli Larijani earlier this year.

The outcome of Tabari's case for allegedly "exerting influence on legal cases" could shed light on what's in store for Larijani, he says.

For now, there appears to be a concerted effort to put a lid on the public dispute. Larijani's letter has been removed from the website of the Expediency Council, and senior clerics have called for calm.

Earlier this week, the daily Javan, affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), called on Larijani and Yazdi to use anti-filtering tools to evade official blocks so they could read comments on filtered social media and see for themselves the damage they've caused the country.

"Corruption has always been the Achilles heel of the regime, and few, if any, of the elite are immune," Ansari said.

"The danger has always been that, if we get into a spiral of accusation and counteraccusation, the entire system will unravel," he added.

Iran is among the world's most corrupt nations, according to Transparency International, which ranked it 138 out of 180 countries in its 2018 Corruption Perception Index.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.