A surprise announcement on 20 October
2007 is generating fresh questions about Iran's strategic policy and
ambitions. The resignation
of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani from this position is
both a signal of tensions inside Iran's complex, multi-layered power-network,
and the withdrawal of a figure who acted as a rational interlocutor
with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
and western governments. In a jittery climate where Washington is heightening
its rhetoric in a manner reminiscent of the pre-Iraq-war period, Larijani's
move is more likely to reinforce than to moderate current dangers.
The news has been met with some dismay
even by conservative figures inside Iran; on 22 October, 183 mostly
conservative members of the majlis (parliament) affirmed their support
for Larijani. Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and international-affairs
adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commented
that "it was best if this hadn't happened."
The first deputy speaker of the majlis (parliament) Mohammad Reza Bahonar told reporters on 21 October that there were "deep-rooted problems" between Larijani and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that "could not be solved". Such differences were exposed in the varying reactions to Vladimir Putin's proposal on the nuclear stand-off made on 16 October, during the Russian president's visit to Iran; while Larijani acknowledged that Tehran was considering Putin's offer to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who himself said it was "ponderable"), the spokesman for Ahmadinejad's government denied the existence of any such proposal or the possibility of a compromise deal.
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005).
She spent her formative years in Iran, attended university in Britain and worked in London, and then returned to her birthplace to work for an NGO for a number of years. Today she lives in Britain.
Also by Nasrin Alavi on openDemocracy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (1 November 2005)
"Inside Iran" (14 February 2006)
"Iran: the elite against the people" (22 May 2006)
"Tehran's red card to human rights" (23 June 2006)
"Iran: cracks in the façade" (11 December 2006)
"Iran's election backlash" (19 December 2006)
"Iran's attack blowback" (5 February 2007)
"Women in Iran: repression and resistance" (5 March 2007)
"Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)
"The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)
Bahonar, a hardline conservative,
also raised questions about the credentials of Larijani's replacement, Saeed Jalili;
"can someone who is not even a member of the supreme national security
council be appointed as its secretary?" The 42-year-old Jalili is
one of Ahmadinejad's chief advisors,
one of a growing number of Ahmadinejad clones that seem to have appeared
from the Iranian political wilderness since the president's election
in 2005; his decade of uninspiring service in the foreign office had
culminated in the post of deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, where
he is credited with orchestrating Iran's closer "south-south"
relationship with Latin American states (particularly Hugo Chávez's Venezuela).
In the west, Larijani is often described as a pragmatic conservative. He had long been critical of the government's handling of Iranian nuclear negotiations under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and his appointment in 2005 to head the supreme national security council was at the time generally seen as a toughening of Iran's stand on the nuclear issue. Yet with the election of Ahmadinejad, figures such as Larijani - who had stood against Ahmadinejad in the election - came increasingly to be viewed as doves. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Iran's deputy president under Khatami, described Larijani's resignation as "dangerous" and recalled his description of Iran's agreed suspension of its uranium-enrichment programme in 2004 as akin to "a precious pearl in return for a sweet". Why cannot Larijani "carry on with his work", Abtahi asked.
Saeed Jalili's welcome
President Ahmadinejad's posse was in full view during his visit to New York in September 2007 for the opening of the United Nations general assembly (and his speech at Columbia University). In addition to Jalili himself were the government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham (whose wife has penned a book calling Ahmadinejad "the miracle of the third millennium") and another powerful presidential advisor, Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh. In a political system where sycophancy is equated with good manners, the camera invariably spies Samareh's habit of physically fawning at the end of each presidential utterance. All the president's men are tightly bonded by their allegiance to Ahmadinejad's spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
Saeed Jalili was asked in March 2007
by a Fars news-agency journalist whether he was Ahmadinejad's "direct
representative in the foreign ministry" and whether he has "provided
the president with many of his foreign-policy ideas". Jalili responded
that he was merely one of many advisors
to the president. He denied having masterminded Ahmadinejad's questioning
of the Nazi holocaust or his spasm of letter-writing to President Bush
(he elaborated: "perhaps as we think alike and we go back a long way,
some may be under this impression".
But resistance to Jalili's appointment is widely shared; several prominent conservatives regard the new chief nuclear negotiator as lacking pedigree and experience. Ahmad Tavakkoli, director of the influential "parliamentary strategic research centre" has previously backed some of the presidents' policies; this time, he expressed disappointment at the resignation of Larijani, whose political stature is far greater than the "inexperienced ex-foreign minister" who replaces him.
These critical murmurings are part of a rising chorus of antagonism from powerful conservatives and reformists alike towards the president and his coterie for their bungling economic policies at home and aggressive policies abroad. In 2005, Jalili may well have been Ahmadinejad's initial choice for foreign minister; but the opposition the new president soon faced in installing candidates for his cabinet (an oil minister was sworn in after a three-month parliamentary deadlock, including three failed attempts to secure a vote of confidence) was always likely to touch the inexperienced Jalili. The post-election confusion ended with a political bargain when Manouchehr Mottaki (who had campaigned for Ali Larijani in the presidential race) was appointed foreign minister.
many articles about Iranian politics under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America" (15 January 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)
Larijani, even after his resignation, still holds the important position of Ayatollah Khamenei's representative in the national security council; in this capacity, he is accompanying Jalili to scheduled talks with the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, in Rome on 23 October; his deputy and right-hand man Javad Vaeedi will also be there, and Larijani's close alliance with Mottaki survives. It remains to be seen whether these personnel shifts will be reflected in a policy reversal, or whether Iran will continue to follow the "work plan" proposed by the IAEA to settle the unresolved questions over its Iran's nuclear activities.
Saeed Jalili responded sharply to
the Fars journalist who questioned the possible "costs" of Iran's
foreign policy by asking "what costs? Today even westerners say
that Iran is more powerful than ever before". In reality, any "success"
that Ahmadinejad has enjoyed owes less to his government's cunning
foreign strategies and more to the United States's strategic ineptitude
in the region. Yet Ahmadinejad is adept on a rhetorical level: he has
used an aggressive US stance to his advantage by portraying his government
and its Revolutionary Guard partners as the only entity inside Iran
willing and able to stand up to an America bent on the regime's destruction,
and for which the nuclear issue is only a pretext.