November 30, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 434

The Political Elite's Inner Struggle In Iran: Larijani's Comeback To Save The Islamic Republic From The Ultraconservatives

November 30, 2022 | By Himdad Mustafa*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 434

Ali Larijani, who has been a central figure in Iranian politics for decades, is making a comeback. Larijani is an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former parliament speaker. However, he was disqualified by the Guardian Council and barred from the 2021 presidential election in favor of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, who had Khamenei's support. Yet in October, Larijani rose to new popularity among moderate conservatives and reformists alike, after publicly criticizing the regime's crackdown against the protesters.

Ali Larijani (Source: Tehran Times)

Larijani Calls For 'Tolerance'

In an interview published by the newspaper Ettelaat, Larijani called for a rethinking of the compulsory hijab law and an acknowledgment that the protests have deep political and social roots. He further said: "It's as if a person had a migraine, but we prescribe him medicine for heart disease, and all the arteries become closed. In the issue of the hijab, we arrived at this situation. This is not the right way to deal with the issue of the hijab. Under these circumstances, when people are having economic problems, once again highlighting the issue of the hijab was inappropriate, and the way [it was dealt with] was not right."[1]

Larijani also stressed: "The hijab has a cultural solution. It does not need decrees and referendums... I appreciate the services of the police force and the Basij, but this burden of encouraging the hijab should not be assigned to them." He then pointed out: "Do not doubt that when a cultural phenomenon becomes widespread, a rigid response to it is not the cure. Now, this issue has a cultural nature... The people and young people who come to the street are our own children. In a family, if a child commits a crime, they try to guide him to the right path. Society needs more tolerance."[2]

Mansour Haghighatpour, Iranian politician and Larijani's adviser, said about Larijani's statements: "We hope that there will be a listening ear, and that these raised concerns regarding the necessity of reform will be turned into solutions. But if super-revolutionaries [i.e. ultraconservatives]... take over the government again, the country's issues will not be fixed, as they do not accept any ideas of reforming the system."[3]

Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative politician with close links to Larijani, also observed: "Some figures now have the courage to express their dissatisfaction with the system and openly talk about the need to change policies. But there are others [referring to ultraconservatives] who still refuse to make any changes."[4]

Larijani As Leader Of Moderates And Reformists In The 2024 Election

Larijani's remarks were to be expected. Even before the start of the protests, his name was widely promoted by moderate conservatives and reformists as the leader in the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections. The London-based Iran International outlet said, quoting Nameh News: "Iran's moderates and reformists will not... be able to find any political ally and leader in the next [2024] election other than Ali Larijani. Meanwhile, even among the conservatives, there are many voters who would welcome the Larijani-led right-of-center faction to replace the far right 'principlists' who currently control the Majlis."[5]

Iranian reformist analyst Abbas Abdi was also quoted as saying: "This is the last chance for Ali Larijani and Iran's traditional conservatives to come back into the spotlight. Without a figurehead such as Larijani, it will be the end of the traditional conservatives who were sidelined in the 2021 presidential election."[6]

Hence, Larijani's moderate words can be seen as an attempt to gather further support in advance of the elections, in both the moderate conservative and reformist camps, to defy the ultraconservatives.

Larijani vs. Ghalibaf

It is worth noting that the political conflict between the reformist and conservative factions shaped Iranian politics for almost two decades. However, the current conflicts are also within the conservative faction that rules the country. In fact, the conservative camp is divided between the "Ultraconservatives," who are led by current President Ebrahim Raisi and Iran's former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and the Neoconservatives (also known as moderate conservatives).

Yet Iran's moderate conservatives are also divided into two currents. One is headed by Majlis Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and the other considers Larijani a political ally and leader. Actually, many moderate conservatives believe that Ghalibaf is not that strong as someone who will bring about reform. His popularity has largely declined in recent years, as he was accused of involvement in corruption scandals in Tehran during his term as mayor.

Given his centrist position, Larijani is expected to face less resistance from reformists as well. Therefore, moderate conservatives (with the exception of those who support Ghalibaf) and reformists would ally to push forward Larijani for his and their political comeback. However, it is expected that a strong political rivalry will take place between the Larijani camp and the one supporting Ghalibaf.

Ultraconservatives Are Blamed For The Unrest

The ongoing uprising in Iran showed President Raisi's failure. Many regime insiders believe that one of the main factors that led to the uprising is the radicalization of the political establishment and the elimination of reformist factions by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Over the past two decades, Khamenei has wiped out all opposition political groups and marginalized even conservative figures in favor of radical hardliners. Especially after the 2021 elections, security forces – in particular, the IRGC – have gained too much control over political decision-making.[7]

As Iran faces its longest-running political challenge since 1979, ultraconservatives have come under fire for their domestic failures that have caused the current political crisis in the country. Many believe that the Raisi government is "the weakest government in the history of the Islamic Republic."

Reformist politician Mehdi Ayati recently criticized the hardliners, stating that the Paydari Party (the ultraconservative party to which the IRGC and Khamenei's inner circle essentially belong) is very "weak" in terms of social support, though playing the "main role" in the government. He assessed: "Paydari's electoral base comprises less than 5% of the country’s population. However, they have marginalized all the other political forces and even other factions within the conservative camp, so now they have full control over the country although they are a minority... The Paydari Party, because of its harsh stances, has increased the number of internal dissidents, which is detrimental to the system. Their stances and actions are the sources of dissatisfaction and protests."[8]

It is worth noting that out of fear of his own political demise, Raisi himself recently called for reforms. Iran International reported: "Raisi has even gone as far as saying that those in his government who do not want reform should leave the cabinet at once. But he used a different term for reform: 'Tahavol,' which means evolution or change, rather than 'eslahat,' which clearly means reforms." However, the outlet added that "the president’s critics have said ironically that the first one who needs to leave the government for his inability to accept change is Raisi himself."[9]

The Role Of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Given the current circumstances, it appears that Ali Larijani is the most likely candidate to assume the leadership of the country in the future, as he enjoys great support from across the political spectrum. Yet his call for reform is not to change the system of the Islamic Republic, but rather to preserve it, as the ultraconservatives are causing the regime's collapse by implementing hardline policies.

Raisi has so far said nothing against Larijani, probably because Larijani is quite close to Khamenei, as his advisor. Actually, if Khamenei removes Raisi from power, he will probably support Larijani, because he is one of the political figures closer to him. However, for the time being, this scenario should be excluded, as Khamenei's current position is to refuse compromise with the protesters.

Surely, the growing political confrontation and internal tensions between the factions are adding further fuel to the flames of the revolt – that may eventually turn into an armed uprising, if the regime does not succeed in quelling the protests. However, the exclusionary character of the Islamic Republic's policies renders plans for reform/change unappealing to ethnic minorities, as none of the political factions recognize their demands for greater freedom.


If Larijani succeeds in his "great comeback," it will mean that both moderate conservatives and reformists have managed to overcome the ultraconservatives. Yet one thing is sure: As renowned Iranian reformist figure Yadollah Eslami said, "Iranian society will by no means return to the situation before the death of Mahsa Amini [Jina Amini in Kurdish]."[10]

For the time being, though, the situation is so polarized that neither the government nor the protesters are looking for mediation or to promote a "third way".

*Himdad Mustafa is a Kurdish scholar and expert on Kurdish and Iranian affairs.


[1], October 12, 2022.

[2], October 12, 2022.

[3], October 15, 2022.

[4], October 15, 2022.

[5], April 3, 2022.

[6], April 3, 2022.

[7] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 430, The Struggle Among The Political Elite Of The Islamic Republic Of Iran, November 16, 2022.

[8], November 23, 2022.

[9], October 26, 2022.

[10], November 21, 2022.

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