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The Proxy War Between the Former Heads of the Judiciary

August 19, 2019
Hessam Ghanatir
5 min read
Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (left) and Sadegh Larijani
Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (left) and Sadegh Larijani

One of Iran’s most influential religious and political figures has publicly criticized Sadegh Larijani, the former head of the judiciary, leading to speculation about power shifts within the Islamic Republic’s political elite. 

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who was himself once chief justice of Iran as well as chairman of the Assembly of Experts until 2016, has made a name for himself by attacking Shia religious authorities who have been critical of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his successor as the Supreme Leader. But now he has entered into a war of words with somebody who is both younger and, unlike others Yazdi has attacked, a constituent member of the regime.

In his memoirs, Mohammad Yazdi proudly describes how, in 1979, he organized a mob to occupy an office belonging to Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, who had been the highest Shia religious authority before the Islamic Revolution. He writes that, “in less than half an hour,” the mob beat up anyone who resisted their attempts to take over the office, tied them up and took them prisoner inside the building. “Until then,” he writes, “we had never done interrogations and I told the person who was accompanying me: ’this is the first official interrogation that we are going to carry out.’”

According to reformist academic Mohsen Kadivar, Yazdi was also the author of two statements by the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom calling for the “defrocking” of ayatollahs Shariatmadari and Yousef Saanei, who until 1983 had been the chairman of the Guardian Council.

When he was first appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei as the head of the Iranian judiciary in 1989, there were heated arguments in the seminary about whether Khamenei qualified as a mujtahid, or religious authority. Yazdi issued a “certificate” attesting to his qualifications and was behind the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom’s confirmation of Khamenei’s standing as a mujtahid.

Yazdi also played a significant role in attacks on the home and offices of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, and on the home and office of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Ahmad Azari Qomi, as well as involvement in placing both men under house arrest.

Yazdi's last public quarrel came in October 2018 when he issued harsh attacks against Grand Ayatollah Musa Shubairi Zanjani because he had met with the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. 

In the past, Sadegh Larijani, who is one of three powerful brothers in Iranian politics, has also carried out strong public attacks against critics of Ayatollah Khamenei, including against the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. At the time, there was speculation that Larijani was trying to endear himself to the Supreme Leader, and he did. When Khamenei appointed Larijani as the Chief Justice of Iran, the Leader called him a “wise scholar.” But even so, many observers believe that Yazdi’s and others’ recent attacks on Sadegh Larijani could not have happened without a green light from the Supreme Leader or his close associates. In other words, Yazdi’s attacks are effectively a proxy war against Larijani.

In a letter to Mohammad Yazdi,  Sadegh Larijani wrote: “All these intrigues show that there is a bigger project behind this incitement and it is aimed at destroying yours truly and perhaps others. This is the [real] question.”


The Ahmadinejad Style

Sadegh Larijani was a critic of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but his method of fighting back against Yazdi bears a resemblance to Ahmadinejad’s. In his letter to Yazdi, Larijani also raised the names of other officials, including the cleric Hossein Taeb, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization, and Tehran’s former mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Larijani also protested against the fact that Akbar Tabari, his deputy when he was chief justice, had been charged with corruption. “Did they do the same thing in the case of Mr. Sharifi, deputy to the former Tehran mayor, or in the case of Mr. Seif, the deputy of financial affairs for the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization, and attribute their corruption to Mr. Ghalibaf, Mr. Taeb and others?”

Speaking at a press conference on July 16, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam Hossein Esmaili said Tabari had been arrested for "exerting influence on some legal cases" and "having unlawful and unethical relationships" related to several lawsuits. Widely known as "the judiciary's strongman in the shadows," Akbar Tabari was the director of finance and then deputy head of the judiciary for administrative affairs for more than two decades. It was after his arrest that the widespread attacks on Larijani started, and he was accused of corruption by association.

In response, Larijani followed Ahmadinejad’s example by threatening to divulge secrets about a number of officials and figures. “Apparently,” he wrote, “today I am paying the price for insisting on investigating them.” In his letter he also tried to demonstrate that Yazdi was illiterate in religious affairs by accusing him of writing a commentary on an important religious text without understanding it. “For years I taught at the seminary and at the university and wrote books,” Larijani wrote. “The impact that these books have had is something real and will not be increased by my claims and not become less important by your insults and humiliations. What have you done in the area of scholarship?”

But in addition to the personal vendetta between the two former chief justices, these attacks might have something to do with the future of the Larijani brothers as well. There have been speculations that Sadegh Larijani could be the next Supreme Leader, and that his brother Ali Larijani, the current Speaker of the Parliament, might be a presidential candidate. 

Ayatollah Yazdi’s recent statements have brought the fight over who will be the next Supreme Leader and the next president of the Islamic Republic into the open, but it so far not clear who the main competitor against Sadegh Larijani will be. There are some who believe it is  the supporters of Ebrahim Raeesi, the current chief justice, who want him to succeed Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. This group enjoys a high degree of influence at the office of the Supreme Leader.

But there are others who say that the attacks are merely meant to destroy Sadegh Larijani and it is not yet clear in whom Ayatollah Khamenei’s close associates are investing. But for the moment at least, Sadegh Larijani is the loser. He no longer holds the high ground that he once did, and he is no longer as close to the Supreme Leader as he once was.


Related coverage: 

A Grand Ayatollah Ordered to Behave, December 2018

Will the Larijani Brothers Go for Ahmadinejad’s Jugular?, December 2017

Iran's Leader Appoints a Criminal as Head of Judiciary, March 2019



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