Iran: prepared for the worst

About the author
Omid Memarian is a journalist who writes for the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency and the Daily Beast, and whose work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2005, he received both Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award and the Hellmen Hemet award. In 2007-09, he was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently working on a multimedia project on the condition of "American Muslims in the Obama Era", and teaches journalism at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). His website is here

The resignation of Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's national-security council and top nuclear negotiator, on 20 October has provoked been much discussion about what it might reveal of Tehran's complex intra-regime politics. What has been less remarked is that this was the second key personnel change among Iran's governing elite in the past two months. This sequence of events, reflecting the key arguments and calculations of Iran's top leaders, signifies the emergence of a revised political strategy designed to cope with with the heightened threat of United States military action.

The moderate conservative Larijani was replaced by deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs Saeed Jalili (who may have a lower profile in the west than Larijani, but has the advantage of being a close advisor of both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei's closest advisors). The move was a surprise - it took place only days before the meeting between Iranian and international representatives over Iran's nuclear programme on 23 October in Rome (which Larijani still attended in his national-security council capacity). What gives it added significance is that it follows the replacement with effect from 1 September of General Rahim Safavi as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards by General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who has a poor reputation among Iranian civil-society activists for his role in suppressing social movements in the late 1990s.

This reshuffle at the top involves more than "routine" political rivalries: it signifies the Islamic Republic's preparation for the worst-case scenario of a US military strike. The calculation is that the appointment of obedient middle-level officials such as Jalili and Jafari is likely to solidify the collective leadership Iran needs during a tense period where the possibility of armed escalation is very real.

What lies behind this calculation, and is the removal of Larijani and Safavi more likely to invite or avert war?

Tehran's chess-game

The conservatives inside Iran's regime share a conviction: that the United States wishes to confront Iran regardless of their response to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the country's nuclear plans, and indeed that any flexibility on Tehran's part will only encourage US aggression. In their mind, if the US neo-conservatives have already decided to pursue the military option against Iran, nothing will stop them. Thus - so the thinking goes within the Islamic Republic's inner councils - by matching Washington's high-profile military manoeuvres and belligerent rhetoric, Iran's hardliners seek to remind the George W Bush administration that any form of war would carry a heavy military cost to the US (and a political one for the Republican Party, particularly in light of the upcoming 2008 elections).

The argument in Tehran, then - counterintuitive though it may seem - is that a "moderate", more amenable negotiating line (which Larijani and Safavi could be portrayed as espousing) is more likely to lead to war; whereas a tougher stance towards the Americans - who are already facing severe challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and potentially Pakistan - is more likely to encourage them to negotiate.

An elite division

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iranian politics under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's attack blowback" (5 February 2007)

Nasrin Alavi,"Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

The difference between this outlook and the more realistic view of Iran's military and political capabilities presented by Larijani and Safavi intensified in recent months. The growing tension between Ahmadinejad and Larijani over Iran's nuclear strategy became especially acute, not least when the president intervened at delicate stages with overheated rhetoric to signal that that he was "the man in charge". Three such moments are worthy of note.

First, the discussions between Ali Larijani and the European Union in Berlin in September 2006 were accompanied by leaked suggestions that the Iranian negotiators had agreed to suspend uranium-enrichment activities for a limited time. Immediately thereafter, Ahmadinejad denounced the west in a speech in Karaj even for asking Iran to suspend its nuclear work. Larijani's denial that any conversations of this kind (which would indicate possible Iranian flexibility) had taken place, effectively reduced him from the status of a seasoned diplomat in charge of one of the most important political issues in the Iranian Republic's history to that of a "messenger" between the president and the EU.

Second, the political division between the two erupted during the security conference held in Munich on 9-11 February 2007, also attended by the US defence secretary, Robert Gates. There, Ali Larijani stated that Iran is ready for further discussions on the nuclear issue; again, Ahmadinejad - attending a commemoration of the Iranian revolution at the time - instantly responded, calling those who would abandon Iran's nuclear ambitions as "the most abhorrent".

Third, Larijani's attempt at negotiations with the EU's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana in September 2007 were undermined by Ahmadinejad during the latter's trip to New York to speak at the United Nations general assembly (and Columbia University); the president insisted that Iran's nuclear dossier is a closed case and negotiations with the west would be pointless.

Ahmadinejad has always felt threatened by Larijani, who was one of the seven candidates given permission to run in the presidential elections of 2005. Larijani was the candidate most favoured by the conservatives, including the supreme leader. In the event, the success of Ahmadinejad's populist campaign overturned expectations, and in the aftermath Ayatollah Khamenei decided to assign Larijani to the secretariat of Iran's national-security council.

This is only one of the factors explaining why Larijani has always felt a sense of accountability to Khamenei rather than Ahmadinejad. There are also family reasons (Larijani is the son of a grand ayatollah, and is married to the daughter of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a very influential cleric who was assassinated at the beginning of the revolution in 1979) and class-elite ones (he has held numerous high-ranking positions, including commander in the Revolutionary Guard, minister of culture and head of national television).

On the precipice

This background notwithstanding, it seems that the supreme leader decided to support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tactics against Larijani and take a hard line over the nuclear issue. This interpretation is supported by a remark of Hamid Reza Taraghi, a ranking conservative and a member of the Hezb-e Motalefeye Eslami (Islamic Coalition Party), who asserted that "if the supreme leader did not agree, Larijani would never have been asked to resign".

Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as deputy to ex-president Mohammad Khatami, has said that the west's perception of Larijani's resignation contains perils for Iran. Abtahi comments: "Larijani had to prepare himself for negotiations while the president announced the case was closed, and of course it is futile to negotiate about a closed case. (His resignation), which will be viewed as Iran's lack of accountability to international demands, is important and dangerous news for Iran."

Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.

Omid Memarian's blog is here

Also by Omid Memarian in openDemocracy:

"Under the radar: an Iranian and America" (17 August 2006)

Iran has repeatedly refused to halt its uranium-enrichment programme, claiming that it is being pursued solely for civil purposes. The UN Security Council, in its two resolutions of December 2006 and March 2007, has demanded substantial cuts in this programme. Ahmadinejad has made the issue a matter of national pride, and it is very unlikely that he and the senior figures in the regime - Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Ali Jafari among them - will back down.

The Islamic Republic may still at one level be eager to resolve its difficulties with the west, yet it is clearly unwilling to retreat from its tough stance on the nuclear question. Tehran's underestimation of the international community's determination to prevent Iran from completing a nuclear-fuel cycle could yet result in great harm to Iran. It is calculating that toughness pays. The problem is, so does Washington. This situation really is "dangerous".