IRAN: Ahmadinejad Faces Heavyweight Foe in Larijani
(My piece about Iran's new speaker of the parliament and his relationship with President Ahmadinejad, publishe in the IPS News Agency)
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 10 (IPS) - This week, Iran's new speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, proposed forming two joint committees of the legislative and judiciary branches in an effort to reconcile new legislation with the Islamic penal code.
The step is viewed as part of Larinaji's enthusiasm to build strategic alliances within Iran's political establishment to enhance the stature of Parliament, which been criticised for a lack of independence and efficiency in the past four years.
Larijani is expected to be a serious critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the coming years. He has close ties to new technocrat leaders, such as the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaii, and the popular mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf -- considered the leading potential rival of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections.
Larijani is also one of the closest and most loyal politicians to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has reportedly called him "my son" in private gatherings -- and the traditional fundamentalist clergy. Over the past two decades, Larijani has held some of the highest appointed positions in the country, such as the supreme leader's representative on the National Security Council and Expediency Council. The position of speaker of Parliament is his first elected office.
Larijani is the son of a grand ayatollah and is son-in-law to Ayatollah Motahari, a cleric for whom Khamenei holds great respect. Over the past 20 years, he has maintained a close relationship with fundamentalist clergy, to the point where prior to running in the parliamentary elections, he visited many leading clerics in Qom, later stating that his candidacy was a direct result of their urging.
Larijani shrewdly decided not to contest the more competitive constituency of Tehran, choosing to run in Qom instead, a city which is the seat of his main base of support. Even so, speculation about a move to Parliament started last year when he resigned just as then Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting Iran.
Ahmadinejad had engineered Larijani's resignation as head of the negotiating team on Iran's nuclear issue. Whenever Larijani made any progress in his negotiations with the Europeans, Ahmadinejad would deliver a speech to discount his achievements.
At one meeting in September 2006, Larijani had agreed to a western offer that Iran suspend its enrichment activities just for a few days, claiming equipment failure, so that Tehran could save face and European countries could announce an agreement.
But before the news of such agreement could even be analysed in Tehran, in a speech in Karaj, Ahmadinejad exposed the contents of the negotiations and declared that Iran would never concede to such a proposal. It put an immediate stop to weeks of talks aimed at easing a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran.
Larijani, who had assumed his role as chief of the negotiating team after relentlessly criticising then President Mohammad Khatami's policies on the nuclear issue, was later surprised to see the Iranian dossier move rapidly from the International Atomic Energy Agency Board to the Security Council, learning quickly that while some political stances are tolerated inside Iran, they will not be tolerated within international diplomatic circles.
The novice diplomat earned three U.N. Security Council resolutions against Tehran in less than a year, leading him to depart his most unglamorous position in a short time and with ill feelings.
In the 2004 elections, out of eight presidential candidates, Larijani came in seventh, but he never accepted Ahmadinejad as his boss, acting as though they were equals. For his part, Ahmadinejad was determined to take back Larijani's appointment to the National Security Council from the supreme leader. Perhaps Larijani realised too late that he may have acted hastily in accepting Khamenei's consolation prize for his failure in the elections.
Though Larijani never explicitly addressed his differences with Ahmadinejad in public, he was vociferous in attacking his policies in private. In the political atmosphere of Iran, this endeared Larijani to analysts and the public, somewhat mitigating the negative memories of his mismanagement of the nuclear negotiations.
What makes Larijani unpopular among most reformists and even some conservatives in Iran is his utter devotion to Khamenei. During Larijani's 10-year tenure as head of the Islamic Republic's state television (IRIB), he accepted and carried out assignments that caused politicians of all ideological stripes to be disgusted with him.
Under Larijani's leadership, IRIB permitted members of the security services to film political prisoners giving fabricated confessions, aired a fake political teaser to destroy Khatami's presidential bid, and selectively broadcast portions of a conference in Berlin which led to imprisonment of many Iranian intellectuals.
These defamation campaigns created a wide impression that Larijani was a puppet of the conservative camp. Interestingly enough, rumours of his disagreements with Ahmadinejad are now reviving his reputation and his entirely-by-appointment political life.
Larijani's presence in the Iranian Parliament while Ahmadinejad aspires to a second term has generated excitement in political circles. With skyrocketing oil revenues accompanied by out-of-control inflation rates, soaring costs of living and the international threats looming over the country, the Iranian Parliament will face growing pressure from Iranians to do something about Ahmadinejad's performance. This could lead to a rift between the government and parliament.
Larijani enjoys a strong political background and is generally a decisive and charismatic politician. When the fundamentalist majority representatives gathered to vote for their leadership, he won 160 of 227 votes, with former speaker Haddad Adel receiving only 50 votes.
At the same time, Larijani is known for his unquestionable obedience to the supreme leader, and depending on Khamenei's outlook and decisions, Larijani will not have a lot of room to manoeuvre. If the supreme leader orders a stop to Ahmadinejad's wasteful economic and political plans, however, Larijani is the man who will be capable of mobilising resistance in parliament.
While Larijani's elitist rhetoric may not have the same appeal as Ahmadinejad's populist persona, his position as speaker can do a lot of damage to the halo the president has successfully wrapped around himself.