Hardliners Flinch as Star Commander Backs Larijani
Ghasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most loved military men, has put his support behind Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani’s bid for election on February 26.
Speaking to the families of Iranian soldiers who had died in the conflict in Syria, Soleimani, who commands Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, praised the speaker, who hopes to be elected to represent the seminary district of Qom — and has also attracted criticism from some of Iran’s fiercest hardliners.
Soleimani told the group he had admired Larijani’s commitment to revolutionary movements in the region throughout the influential candidate’s career, from his time at state-run Islamic Republic of Iranian Broadcasting to the present day. “He has always supported the Qods Force and I have always enjoyed his intellectual and practical support. I wish him success.” Soleimani’s comments make specific reference to Larijani’s time as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2005 to 2007.
With elections to take place only two days away, Soleimani’s support for Larijani has come at a key time. Hugely respected and even revered for his reputation a powerful military figure, Soleimani has set out not only his own political leaning, he has also hinted at the agendas of senior figures in the Revolutionary Guards. And his support for Larijani could derail — or at least damage — the hardliners’ propaganda campaign against Iran’s reformist and moderate candidates. For them, the image of Soleimani standing side by side with Larijani marks an unwelcome shift in Iran’s political landscape.
Larijani, who qualified to run for representative for the seminary district of Qom, is considered to be a moderate principlist, an advocate of the values of Ayatollah Khomeini and the early days of the Iranian revolution. But hardliners openly criticized him after he refused to be included on their list of candidates. In addition, a number of his candidates Larijani is currently affiliated with appear on the reformist list or on the list of candidates endorsed by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, moderates reviled by most hardliners.
Soleimani has for many years been held up as a political symbol for Iran’s hardliners, a diplomat for the regime and a powerful embodiment of the values of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And Ali Larijani has represented the exact opposite: a man deviating from some of hardliners' most cherished ideals, an ally of President Hassan Rouhani who not only supported the nuclear deal, but actively played a role in its outcome.
Because of his huge popularity, the special forces commander could have a significant impact on voter support for the current speaker of parliament. And Larijani has not been remiss in showing continued support for Soleimani. Last summer at a gathering of the Revolutionary Guards commanders, Larijani praised the Qods Force as the “inspiring aspect of the Islamic revolution” and the guarantor of the “protective power of Iran in the region.”
Larijani's praise is now paying off. When voicing his support for Larijani — one of four influential brothers in one of Iran’s most powerful families — Soleimani referred to his accomplishments for Iran across the region, calling him “one of the most effective people in regional development.” In the days leading up to the parliamentary elections, hardliners have attacked Larijani's role in the region, but they have not limited their attacks to his record on international relations: they have taken every opportunity to attack his domestic policies as well.
In Iran's 2013 presidential election, General Soleimani endorsed Tehran’s mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who was also considered to be a moderate principlist. Again, his support for Ghalibaf not only revealed his political agenda, but that of senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, many of whom supported Ghalibaf, a Guards man himself. Ghalibaf of course lost the election to Hassan Rouhani, but he remains an influential figure as Tehran's mayor.
Soleimani’s public support for Larijani — voiced to an audience who may have felt reticent to get behind the speaker until now — reveals the commander’s keen understanding of the current climate in Iran today. And it also presents a man who knows very well how to position himself within that volatile environment, and get what he needs from it.