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Hard-line brothers seek to oust Iran's old guard conservatives

A new wave of Iranian hard-liners who embrace the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini is looking to replace the entrenched conservatives that the younger grouping thinks have strayed from the path.
TEHRAN, IRAN - MAY 29: Iran's top nuclear negotiator and presidential candidate for the upcoming elections, Saeed Jalili, waves during a campaign rally, attended by his female supporters on May 29, 2013 in Tehran, Iran. Jalili, who is running in next month's presidential elections says he will promote a policy of resistance against the West if elected. The elections are scheduled for June 14 and Jalili has stated that he wishes to revive policies of the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought clerics to power.

Two well-known brothers are once again causing a stir among Iranian hard-liners, leading a relatively younger generation of far-right political conservatives in a revolt against the old guard.

The two are Vahid Jalili, 46, who has been involved in cultural affairs and is a senior figure among the new wave of hard-liners, and his 54-year-old sibling, former nuclear negotiator and presidential candidate Saeed Jalili.

The most recent row began when Vahid Jalili launched an onslaught of criticism against state TV, which has a monopoly over radio and TV channels in Iran. On Sept. 4, he pointed a finger at the highly influential Hossein Mohammadi, the cultural deputy of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office who is a generation older than Jalili. Jalili also criticized the current head of state TV, Abdulali Ali Asgari (born in 1958, around age 61), his deputy Morteza Bagheri and Ezzatollah Zarghami, former chairman of state TV. Jalili said the group has held a tight grip over state TV for three decades, noting that their friendships date back to their high school days in the 1970s. (It was soon revealed, however, that Jalili and his entourage also run a state TV channel.) 

Bringing up the low-profile but powerful Mohammadi and wielding sway in state TV is unprecedented, as it has been taboo for the media to criticize the supreme leader’s office members. But a younger grouping of hard-liners is breaking that taboo, seeking to topple the old guard and replace it in the power centers and institutions. The younger generation strongly believes the old guard doesn’t accurately follow the guidance of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who died in 1989 at age 86) and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 80.

Adding fuel to the infighting, Ehsan Mohammad Hosna, the 39-year-old chairman of Owj Arts and Media Organization, a group affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and known for its many movie productions, has thrown his weight behind Jalili. On Sept. 9, Hosna boasted that members of the new generation are like "long-range missiles" that will soon destroy the foundations of the old.

Meanwhile, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar Harandi, a 66-year-old former adviser to the IRGC chief commander and a former editor at the hard-line conservative Kayhan newspaper, responded Sept. 12, to Jalili, defending Mohammadi and state TV. He also took a swipe at Jalili, stating Jalili is not in a position to be compared with Mohammadi and doesn't even come close to Mohammadi in talent.

Kayhan also warned Jalili against taking a path that might turn him into an exiled opposition figure. “[Jalili's] behavior will result in a kind of gladiatorial political training among some young and inexperienced forces who can easily be recruited by [enemies] disguised as [justice-seekers]," read a Sept. 16 piece in the paper.

The trade of barbs, which wasn’t limited to what's mentioned here, caused a ballyhoo across a range of conservatives. Masoud Foroughi, the right-wing editor of Farheekhtegan newspaper, attacked Jalili, arguing that Jalili owes his current status to his relationships with Mohammadi and the supreme leader’s support for “the revolutionary cultural activists." The editor then revealed that the Ofogh ("Horizon") state TV channel — which has strong hard-line policies and constantly broadcasts shows and interviews criticizing Reformists and moderates — is managed by Jalili and his associates.

Foroughi then said that Jalili is seeking to take over state TV entirely, and mocked him, saying the very low number of Ofogh viewers shows what would happen if Jalili reigned over the organization.

It seems the Farheekhtegan editor was right to some extent, as some of the conservative camp's infighting is apparently over who should run state TV. Reports surfaced in the media about the Owj's Hosna as a possible state TV chairman. If successful, the move would be seen as the first highly important step of the new wave of hard-liners in toppling the old guard. The war wouldn't be limited to state TV.

Saeed Jalili is famous in Iran for running in the 2013 presidential election and his verbal clashes with Reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani during the debates. The hard-liner is better known in the Western media, however, for his tenure as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator before Rouhani's presidency.

After losing to Rouhani in 2013, Jalili didn’t halt his campaign. Indeed, he carried out attacks on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for reaching a nuclear deal with the West, considered by Jalili and hard-liners as a loss for Tehran.

In the 2017 presidential election, Jalili became an important figure with a large number of new-wave hard-liners behind him. He turned down an invitation to join the old-guard coalition the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (abbreviated as JAMNA in Persian). In the days before the election registration, he dropped out of the race without declaring his support for JAMNA’s candidates. Following the election, he announced that he would create a network and organize a new current to mobilize forces and people who supported him.

In a more recent gesture indicating Jalili’s continued strategy of not following along with the old guard, he refrained from joining the hard-liners’ new Unity Council coalition ahead of the 2020 parliamentary election, a move that has angered older conservatives.

What's clear is that the younger hard-liners are no longer the obedient foot soldiers of the old guard, and are now keen to take over. In the meantime, a rivalry is simmering between figures such as former presidential candidate and former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, 58, and the Jalili brothers, among others, to lead the younger conservatives. It will be interesting to see the outcome.

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