Conflicts Among Clerics in Iran: Mutual Accusations of Corruption


Again, Sadiq Larijani, the Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council and the former chairman of the judiciary came under severe attack calling into question his political and financial integrity. Ayatollah Yazdi accused him of financial corruption and abuse of power during his meeting with officials of the Basij Center, teachers and senior clerics of the Qom seminary on August 16, 2019. The attacks mounted by the Rouhani government against him include accusations of having secret bank accounts in which he deposits judicial fines which the judiciary collects from litigants. This is in addition to the harsh criticism leveled against him by Ahmadinejad accusing him of arresting citizens without any legal basis. However, the attack this time comes from Ayatollah Yazdi, the former head of the judiciary and Secretary General of the Qom Seminary Teacher’s Union, who is also the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Religious Seminaries.

I- Mutual Accusations of Corruption
The crisis between Yazdi and Larijani broke out after the former gave a speech in the religious seminary of Qom in which he blasted Hassan Rouhani, Larijani and cleric Mohammed Javad Alawi Broujardi. He criticized the three officials, telling Rouhani: “If you are incapable of running the affairs of the state, you should go.” He told Alawi: “Not everyone whose grandfather is a cleric should be a cleric. Marjaia is not a plaything. For you to become a cleric, you should be endorsed by five senior clerics, including the supreme leader, you cannot grant the title to yourself.”

1-Yazdi’s Accusations Against Larijani
Yazdi began his accusations against Sadiq Larijani by stating that he is exerting pressure on the supreme leader to release his aide Akbar Tabari who is detained on charges of financial corruption. Yazdi said of Larijani: “One of them tells the supreme leader that if you don’t obey this order, I will turn to Najaf. Well! Go to Najaf then. Will your turn to Najaf cause harm to Qom? You were not influential in Qom, so will you be influential in Najaf? They arrested the director of his office who has occupied an important administrative position for 10 years. Then Larijani protests and wonders why he is arrested. They have established a palace under the guise of establishing a religious school. Have you inherited this money from your father? From where did you get the money?”
Yazdi’s remarks on the corruption of Tabari, the head of Larijani’s office, added to the many suspicions surrounding Larijani – who is strongly backed by the supreme leader. The corruption of the judicial authority over the past 20 months, has opened the door for speaking out against financial corruption within religious seminaries which are now considered by Iranians as palaces only entitled to clerics. They are no longer venues for acquiring jurisprudential knowledge. Tabari has been arrested on direct orders from the new chief of the judiciary Ibrahim Raisi. This came as Tabari hastened to submit his resignation as the director general of financial affairs of the judiciary only seven days after Raisi took office. Larijani’s shift from the chairmanship of the judiciary to the Expediency Discernment Council made Tabari isolated. He was Larijani’s key aide and was responsible for overseeing the financial assets of the judiciary over the past 20 years. He was known for shunning media appearances. Tabari established and managed several economic projects owned by the judiciary such as the entertainment complex in Shiraz, the Specialized Dental Center, Water Games Complex in Shiraz and other profitable projects. He also partook, along with Baqer Larijani, brother of Sadiq Larijani, in overseeing the establishment of the judges’ hospital project.
Yazdi’s corruption accusations against Larijani focused on him building a religious school in the upscale neighborhood of Lavasan at a hefty cost. Yazdi hinted that it is not a school but a luxurious mansion established by Sadiq Larijani using the funds of the judicial authority and the presence of students there is nothing but a camouflage to disguise the corrupt scheme. Choosing the neighborhood of Lavasan opens a bigger corruption file in which Larijani is also involved as well as Ali Natiq Nouri, the former head of the supreme leader’s inspection office and the former speaker of the Iranian Parliament.
The Lavasan Villas corruption file was raised in 2016 through the audio file published by activist Reza Jalpur, who was handed a 15-year jail sentence after revealing these leaks. He revealed that 62 villas, with each one established on an area of 2,000 meters, had been constructed and distributed to some of the government’s officials. Bribes were given to Natiq Nouri, who utilized the bribery money to build a home on an area of 1,100 meters at Flora Tower as well as a 700-meter apartment for Abbas Jafar Davlatabadi, Tehran’s attorney general, while getting approvals to implement the project. It was revealed afterwards that Akbar Tabari, director of Larijani’s office, was commissioned to carry out the Lavasan Villas project.

2- Larijani’s Response to Yazdi’s Accusations
The Office of the Chairman of the Expediency Discernment System issued an official statement to respond to the accusations leveled by Yazdi against Larijani. The latter denied that he said he would depart for Najaf. He also denied support for Akbar Tabari. But he heaped insults on Yazdi. “I did not say that my presence in Qom is important, but tell me, what did you do in the field of inquiry and scientific research? You never did any scientific research. Even your performance in the Guardian Council was not professional. You were asked to apologize on many occasions. The rest of the members always remained silent as they respected your old age. Despite your loud voice, you did not know exactly what the debates were revolving around. Even the person who has recently been arrested was not the director of my office. The director of my office is Mr. Khalfi. Tabari was the executive director of the judiciary chairmanship office. Therefore, he is one of the aides of Mr. Khalfi, not the head of my office. As to the religious school, which is the Wali Asr School, it is already an endowment handed down to me from my father Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hashem Amoli. The endowment was run by a person other than me at the time. He demanded that the school be renovated and reconstructed. He is carrying out the mission with the help of other persons.”
Then Larijani embarked on personal attacks against Yazdi. He said, “Yes, this school is not an inheritance from my father. But are these schools in Qom of which you take advantage inherited from your father? As to your claim that it is a palace and not a school, I would like to ask you one question: Have you compared the school building with the Assembly of Experts Research Center building, which you turned into a residence for yourself during your tenure as chairman of the assembly?” Then Larijani blasted the performance of the judiciary before he took it over. He added, “17 million cases have been settled in 2018 alone.”

II- The Reasons Behind the Outbreak of the Crisis
The monopoly on power by the Larijanis, represented in Ali Larijani and Sadiq Larijani, raises the ire of both “reformists” and “conservatives” due to the incessant support they get from the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei despite the recurrent accusations leveled at them of corruption and abuse of power.
Over the past 20 years, the two officials have left their positions for only one reason: to assume a higher position. When he was only 38-years-old, Sadiq Larijani obtained membership in the Assembly of Experts. One year later, he became a member in the Guardian Council following a decree from the supreme leader. He was barely 50-years-old when the supreme leader appointed him as head of the judiciary. In 2018, the supreme leader appointed Larijani as head of the Expediency Discernment Council while maintaining his membership in the Guardian Council. Despite the importance of the positions occupied by Sadiq, his brother Ali represents a unique example within the Iranian political system. He has continuously held the office of parliamentary speaker since 2008, for three consecutive terms, after he won the parliamentary seat in Qom. He also assumed several government positions after he retired as a colonel from the IRGC. This includes the chairmanship of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, membership in the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, chairmanship of the Radio and Television Organization and the position of minister of culture and Islamic guidance.
In addition to the multiple positions assumed by the two Larijani brothers, suspicions of financial corruption have always surrounded them. They have also been receiving support from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, even though this support has raised the ire of the ruling elite and the Iranian people alike. During the sixth term of the Iranian Parliament, where the “reformists” were holding a majority, reports were submitted to the speaker of the Parliament on the corruption within the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which was chaired by Ali Larijani. The Guardian Council refused to investigate the matter after Parliament submitted the request. It said clearly that the supreme leader rejects conducting an investigation.
After intense pressure from Parliament, the supreme leader agreed to conducting the investigation. The result revealed the embezzlement of 5,250 billion Iranian rials, or $262 million according to the current exchange rate of the national currency. This was revealed after only checking five bank accounts owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting out of the organization’s total of 200 bank accounts. Ali Larijani then mocked the results of the investigation. He said that the results were worthless. No decision was issued by the judiciary or the government against Larijani as a result of the investigations. The Larijanis continued to be elevated to senior positions, drawing widespread consternation.
The corruption of the Larijanis and the support they have been receiving from the supreme leader is nothing new. It is known at home and abroad. In 2012, the European Union even issued sanctions against Sadiq Larijani, banning him from entering European Union countries and freezing his assets due to his severe and widespread violation of human rights.
But perhaps the motive behind the attack by Ayatollah Yazdi on Sadiq Larijani is the news circulating within the corridors of the seminary and the supreme leader’s Office on paving the way to promote Sadiq Larijani to the position of the supreme leader in the future. This is in addition to the rigging of the elections of 2021 to ensure Ali Larijani’s victory.

III- The Consequences of the Crisis
The crisis between Yazdi and Larijani caused much uproar inside and outside Iran. The two men are former chiefs of Iran’s judicial system. They should not lie or make fabricated allegations, at the very least before the Iranian public. But they heaped accusations of financial corruption, ignorance and lack of jurisprudential knowledge at each other. This happened despite their prestigious religious position and being deemed as ijtihad-driven clerics who are followed by thousands of Iranians. Hence, here arises an important question before Iranian public opinion: Who among them is a liar, and who is truthful? Or are both of them truthful, asserting charges of corruption and ignorance against each other? There is no doubt that the crisis exceeded the boundaries of personal relations. It has reached the extent of scrutinizing the government’s financial management and performance. The crisis will hold consequences for the Iranian government and state, including:

1- The Decline of the Clergy’s Status in Iran
Since its establishment, the Iranian government has been seeking to create a certain image in the Iranian collective mindset about clerics in Iran. This image is based on clerics living a life of asceticism and austerity, as well as standing up against injustice, and rallying to help the vulnerable and standing on the opposing side of rulers at home and abroad. The political will of Khomeini constituted one of the key factors in laying the foundations of this image. He called for preserving the position of clerics within the political system of the Islamic republic. The Iranian government also set up clerical courts in order to maintain the prestige of clerics by preventing them from committing acts causing harm to this image. But this prestige has been eroding over the past four decades due to publicly disclosed financial, administrative and moral corruption cases. This is combined with the despotic rule that Khamenei has been working to strengthen and consolidate over the past 29 years since assuming office as supreme leader. In the beginning, the corruption of clerics was always exposed by dissidents based overseas. When the “reformist” movement emerged on the scene and took over the executive authority after President Mohammed Khatami took power in 1997, the corruption committed by clerics was now revealed by those at home. This corruption has always been exposed by “reformist” figures, who were in most cases not clerics themselves. Then the era of Ahmadinejad began. He openly blasted the corruption of the late Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as other clerics who were known as traditional “conservatives”. After he left office, Ahmadinejad severely criticized the Larijanis, accusing them of financial and political corruption, as well as repressing freedom and attacking citizens. He issued a public message addressed to the supreme leader, calling on him to protect the citizens from the Larijanis. This happened at the tomb of Shah Abdel-Azim, which is deeply venerated by Iranians, where Iranians always turn in times of difficulty.
But the crisis between Yazdi and Sadiq Larijani was of a new nature. It was unprecedented within the Iranian government. The two clerics exchanged accusations of financial corruption and abuse of power, as well as ignorance and lack of jurisprudential knowledge.
There is no doubt that what happened exposed the enormity of the corruption cutting across the Iranian government before the people and even within segments supportive to the government. The two men are affiliated with the religious seminary in Qom. Both of them have been, and are still, occupying senior positions within the political system and seminary. Thus, how can the government maintain its credibilty at the popular level after the exposure of scandal and corruption cases?

2- Impacting the Government’s Political Stability
It is clear that the crisis has impacted the political stability of the government. Both men enjoy politically heavyweight positions and exercise palpable influence on several key political currents within the Iranian political system. But assessing the scope of this damage depends on the trajectories of the crisis in the coming days, which will undoubtedly be influenced by the supreme leader’s position and the reaction to the crisis by the political currents. The scope of the impact on the political stability of the government can be assessed through three scenarios regarding the development of the crisis:
1- Escalation
It seems that escalation between the two parties is still likely. The two men may issue more statements which expose a great deal of corruption among clerics and the political system in Iran because the statement released by Larijani hinted at this. He said that he possesses countless secrets concerning officials, senior figures and sons of dignitaries. He said that he believes the former Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Commander of the Air Force of the IRGC and the Chief of the IRGC intelligence service Hussein Talib stand behind a scheme to smear him. Larijani said that the aides of these people were handed sentences for financial crimes.
Additionally, Yazdi was severely attacked by Larijani, who accused him of corruption, ignorance and lack of jurisprudential knowledge. Yazdi is known for his ego-centric personality and excessively heaping blame on others. On the other side, Ebrahim Raisi may engage in the matter and open an investigation into the mutual charges between the two men as he is the current chief of the judiciary. But it is ruled out that Raisi could take such a step, given his close ties to the supreme leader. He will not want to undermine the government’s figures by targeting the Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, who is close to him. However, it is expected that this may not be the last round between Yazdi and Larijani unless the crisis is contained by the supreme leader and senior clerics in Qom.
2- The Continuation of the Crisis
Khamenei did not prevent Larijani from responding to Yazdi nor did he call for ceasing the mutual attacks. But from within Khamenei’s inner circle, Ayatollah Yazdi has been attacked. Ayatollah Karimi, a senior aide of the supreme leader, said that Yazdi clashes with a political figure every day. Yesterday he was at odds with Hashemi Rafsanjani. Today he is at odds with Sadiq Larijani. He also rejected Yadzi’s remarks that Rouhani is not fit to run the state or that he is at odds with Khamenei. He said:“If the supreme leader has a heroic official, undoubtedly he is Hassan Rouhani.” On Yadzi’s comments on ousting Rouhani, he said:”This responsibility lies with Parliament, not him. This is not within his powers. Yazdi’s accusations against Larijani are unfounded.”
Based on the foregoing, we could conclude that the crisis will drag on for some time. This is attributed to the possibility of the crisis being exploited by the two parties through taking advantage of the divisions among clerics and finding out who out of the two clerics is more flexible and understands better the coming phase. The indications of the next phase undoubtedly are in favor of the Larijanis due to the absolute support of the supreme leader. Hence, the crisis will turn out to be a tool to domesticate the religious seminary and make it more obedient to the government, even more than its current status. The crisis will also be used for systematically exonerating Sadiq Larijani of all previous charges, restoring his political and financial integrity after scrutiny which will result in everybody acknowledging the integrity of the new candidate for the position of the supreme leader. Although some believe that the litany of charges surrounding Larijani may reduce his chances to become the supreme leader, the decline of Khamenei’s position in the last days of Khomeini did not prevent him from becoming the supreme leader. Therefore, it is not ruled out that Larijani will be the next supreme leader.
3- Easing Tensions and Resolving the Crisis
Clerics in Iran expressed their resentment at the depth of the spat between Yazdi and Larijani as this crisis damages the prestige of clerics within Iranian society. Thus, several clerics have hastened to call for a halt in the mutual accusations between the two sides. Ayatollah Jannati was the first to call for this as he is the Chairman of the Guardian Council in which both Larijani and Yazdi are members. Jannati lauded both of them, citing their record of serving the government. He said:“Soon, everybody will see them standing together.”

It seems that although the two previous scenarios have low odds, the scenario of easing tensions and resolving the crisis is more likely given the escalating confrontation with the United States which the government is currently facing, as well as the subsequent severe economic crisis and the imminent collapse of the nuclear deal.
Yet, the ends that could be achieved for the government and the parties to the crisis are costly. The achievement of such ends could be postponed to a better time, especially considering that Iran is on the threshold of parliamentary elections next May. There is no doubt that such continuous and reciprocal accusations of corruption will cause damage to the “conservative” movement and the Iranian political system in its entirety.

Editorial Team