Ali Motahari, Iran’s Conservative Maverick
Ali Motahari is one of the most outspoken politicians in Iran. He is considered a conservative maverick and a ‘loose cannon’ by hardliners. He does not hesitate to publicly criticize powerful figures including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Although he is nationally recognized for his stance on various issues that are considered ‘red lines’, he does not have a high international profile. He entered parliament in 2008, and since 2016 he has been serving as the second deputy speaker. Some of his views represent both the principlist (conservative) and reformist camps, and he has angered the fundamentalists for his criticism of their policies.
Motahari was born in 1956 in Tehran. He has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tehran where he still teaches. His father, Morteza Motahari, was one of the most influential figures in Ayatollah Khomeini’s inner circle in the run-up to the revolution. He was one of the main ideologues of the Islamic Republic, and before his assassination in 1979, he was the chairman of the Council of the Islamic Revolution at Khomeini’s request. Over the last 40 years, his death has been commemorated annually on 2 May as National Teachers’ Day.
As a result, Ali Motahari is a recognizable and respected brand in the Iranian establishment. As well as having a very influential father with a ‘heroic’ status, Motahari is connected to another influential family. He is the brother-in-law of Ali Larijani, the former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the current parliamentary speaker. Another Larijani brother, Sadeq Larijani, is the powerful head of the judiciary.
Motahari was critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), even during his first term when all principlists effectively supported him. Although Motahari condemned the 2009 post-presidential election mass protests, he denounced the harsh crackdown on protesters. Since the leaders of the Green Movement, Hussain Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest without due process, Motahari has repeatedly called for their freedom, stating that the supreme leader is wrong to keep them confined.
On a public platform in the city of Mashhad, he said, “The prophet of Islam himself cannot say that a person’s sentence is severe, without prosecution and defence, and hand down a judgment without hearing their defence. I have not been convinced by this argument, and I still urge that house arrest without judicial order is oppression and is unjust.”
Furthermore, he reportedly suggested that had his father not been assassinated shortly after the revolution, Ali Khamenei would not have ascended to Iran’s top position. Such references to the leader are highly sensitive in a climate where he is treated as virtually infallible.
Motahari has also been critical of the powerful and equally fearsome IRGC, saying that “the range of activities of the intelligence units of the IRGC is not acceptable”. He has also questioned the IRGC’s political and economic role, which is increasingly becoming a sensitive topic for the regime.
“The interference of the IRGC in many of the election centres came in the form of serious support for candidates, which were to its liking. Many of the candidates, including those who were elected and those who were not elected, accept this reality and this is a blight on the IRGC, the Islamic revolution‘s future, and goes against the imam’s [Ruhollah Khomeini] well-known admonition [regarding military non-interference in politics]. The duty to guard the ideals of the revolution, which has been stated in the IRGC’s constitution, does not mean interference in politics, but rather to fight armed groups like the Mojahedin, Forghan and PEJAK who took up arms in rebellion.”
Furthermore, he has been an outspoken opponent of the crackdown on journalists, activists and social media actors, and he has called the conservative editor-in-chief of Kayhan Daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader’s “foolish friend”.
His public position on these issues has had consequences for him. In recent years, he has been a victim of attacks by hardliners. Most notably, he was physically assaulted in the city of Shiraz in 2015. Although he has become the voice of moderation, when it comes to the cultural and social sphere, his views are conservative. For example, in 2013 he stated, “The interior minister should explain why he is indifferent to women wearing tights in Tehran and some other cities. Since the Islamic revolution, the accepted dress code [for women] has been the chador, or a knee-long manteau, with a headscarf or veil.”
Iran is at a crossroads. The current socio-economic instabilities could pave the way for a transition that could either result in more political freedom or even greater political restrictions. In this tense situation, political actors such as Motahari may have a chance to play a more proactive role, which could affect the prevailing situation in one way or another.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)