I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau, which published it on November 23, 2010.
Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani's recent election as chairman of the majority faction has highlighted the cracks in the pro-regime Principlist camp and the ambiguous nature of democracy in the Islamic Republic.
A review of news reports, interviews, and official blogs indicates that Larijani obtained only 25 votes, but that creative electioneering allowed his supporters to advance the figure of 44, under the pretense of presenting a picture of unity to the general public.
told Aftab daily. But by Tuesday afternoon, Shargh daily reported that the meeting had been postponed. 'It has become clear that 37 of the central council's 44 members are critics of Larijani's stewardship. [...],' wrote the paper. 'Consequently, Larijani's supporters have again postponed the meeting of the Principlist faction's central council which was to have elected its board.'
As the deputy chief of the Front for Followers of the Line of the Imam and the Leader, an umbrella organization comprising over a dozen Principlist groups, he was approached by the Society of Combatant Clergy and the Islamic Coalition Party to make another run for the presidency in 2009. He turned down the offer, but made some surprisingly positive remarks about another candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who would go on to become one of the main leaders of the Green movement. 'He believed that Mousavi was a known individual with administrative experience and that he was respected by all,' wrote Khabar Online, which is incidentally close to Larijani. '[He believed that Mousavi] was loyal to the principles of the regime and the revolution, and that his red lines were the Imam [Ruhollah Khomeini], the constitution, and the velayateh faghih ('Rule of the jurisprudent,' principle from which Khamenei derives his power).' It was not unusual at the time for some conservatives to endorse Mousavi and indeed they formed an official organization called Principlist Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Sadr was not a member of that group and gave his endorsement to Ahmadinejad. Following the disputed election and in the past year, he has generally refrained from making speeches or appearing on television programs, although he did extend his congratulations to Ahmadinejad and the nation. In May, he was chosen by his peers as the Second Deputy Speaker of the Majlis. Larijani ran unchallenged for the post of Speaker in the same election.
In the central council meeting of November 7, Sadr accepted to run against Larijani for chairman of the Principlist faction of the legislature. There were 47 participants in the meeting -- the 44 members of the central council and the 3 members of the faction's arbitration committee -- and all had the right to vote, according to the statutes of the faction. Per two reports, one arbitrator and one member of the council were absent.
Esmail Kowsari (representative of Tehran), attempted to start the meeting with a few words about the Speaker's record, but was not given the floor. Ballots were distributed and Larijani won 25 votes to Sadr's 20. There were two blank votes.
Larijani's supporters countered with their own version, which was not much more convincing. 'Before the [official] vote, Mr.Nejabat suggested that the vote with paper ballots be considered an exploratory vote (raygiriyeh estemzaji) and that whichever candidate obtained the favor of the majority, he should become the unique candidate of the faction and all of us should vote for him, so that the unity and homogeneity of the Principlists could be shown to the people,' explained Seyed Hossein Naghvi Hosseini (representative of Varamin) to Khabar Online.
What about the salavat prayer? 'The salavat was uttered when Mr. Nejabat made his suggestion and it was asked that those who favored the suggestion should say a salavat,' added Hosseini. Asked why so many central council members were complaining, Hosseini said, 'In any case, this drum of opposition in the central council of the Principlists is nothing new. In my opinion, the opposition of some of our colleagues to Mr. Larijani is entering the sphere of Principlism.'
While the drumbeat of opposition to Larijani is nothing new, neither are irregularities in his election to the chairmanship of the Principlist faction. Last year, when he ran against Morteza Agha Tehrani, 'Larijani's supporters were told that the meeting was at 4 PM and his critics were told that the meeting would start at 4:30 PM,' according to Rasai. 'Twelve of the 44 members of the central council arrived late, after the election had already taken place.'
But, of course, last year, the country was contending with another disputed election.