June 11, 2008

NIAC Memo: The Implications of Ali Larijani’s Election

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Washington, DC – The election of Ali Larijani as the new speaker of Iran’s parliament marks a major development within the faction-ridden politics of the Islamic Republic. For the most part, the recent election is the latest sign of dissatisfaction of Iran’s electorate with Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy. But, more importantly, Lari-jani’s ascension also brings to light the implication of internal tension within the conservative faction, which has become in-creasingly wary of the presi-dent’s recalcitrance that can lead to confrontation with the West.

With the rejection of the former speaker, Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel, a staunch supporter of the president, Larijani will now lead a new conservative legislative body that aims to reform the failed economic policies of the current regime and revise the diplomatic posture on the nuclear issue. The new parliament, largely composed of conservatives loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, poses a major challenge to Ahmadinejad’s authority, whose hardliner administration saw the resignation of Larijani from the office of Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — Iran’s main institute that deals with security-related matters — in October 2007.

The tension between Ahmadinejad and Larijani is mainly tactical rather than ideological. With a shared belief in the Islamist mission of the state, the two figures differ on how the Islamic Republic can be expanded and maintained in a region believed to be dominated by the U.S. As a pragmatist, Larijani wants to diplomatically engage with the West, advocating the view that the nuclear program must not harm the country’s national security. While recognizing a possible U.S. or Israeli military attack on the country’s nuclear facilities, Larijani is keen to end tensions over the nuclear crisis, like the way he helped end the crisis over the British sailors in 2007. With a degree in Western philosophy and years of diplomatic experience as a top negotiator, Larijani maybe the best option emerging from the conservative faction for a credible solution to the nuclear issue. Not surprisingly, the stand-off has caused considerable concern among ordinary Iranians.

The news of Larijani’s election, however, comes amid increasing scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear technology. With the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that point to problems of transparency regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the new parliament and its new speaker now face a major challenge to convince the U.N. security council that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Such challenge can be mitigated in light of the new parliament’s potential willingness for flexibility and compromise.

A possible scenario is that the new parliament could move to undermine the president by seeking to proactively engage with the give the P5+1 states. Most likely, however, Iranian lawmakers will not operate outside the realm of the state’s official foreign policy. In face of a foreign foe, the entire conservative bloc (both pragmatist and ideologues) will remain united, especially under increasing outside pressure. In light of the new political developments, what we most likely will witness from Tehran though is the ascension of a mood of flexibility and the way in which such a mood can influence Ayatollah Khamenei, who maintains the highest authority in the Iranian state apparatus, and his posture on the nuclear issue.

Like Larijani, Khamenei too has shown signs of pragmatism, even describing the current conflict between Iran and U.S. as transient, hence opening the possibility for direct diplomacy. A pragmatic Larijani, who is favored by Khamenei, could be a major shift of Iranian diplomatic strategy, and a significant opening for achieving a decisive compromise on the unclear crisis.

Despite the positive dimensions of Larijani’s election, there are major problems that remain to be solved. The heart of the unfolding Iranian nuclear crisis is the factor of trust. Many Iranian officials, including Larijani, remain wary of the Security Council’s intention of seeking to suspend the country’s nuclear program. With nearly three decades of grievances over issues ranging from economic sanctions to support for Saddam during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), Tehran is highly suspicious of American maneuvering in the IAEA, which is perceived to be aimed at containing Iran’s growing influence in the region.

In his inaugural speech to the Iranian parliament, Larijani criticized the U.S.-led efforts to suspend Iran’s nuclear technology and described the strategy of the IAEA towards Iran as “one thousand and one nights” diplomacy. The West, he argued, seeks to deceive and perpetually delay the negotiations in order to achieve the objective of keeping Iran isolated and weak, depriving the country of its fundamental right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. For Larijani, the new parliament can take the initiative to set a new diplomatic line for cooperation with the IAEA, if it feels that the West, led by the U.S., is seeking to undermine Iran’s national interest.

These remarks are a stern warning to those in Washington who still seek a diplomatic path to resolving the ongoing nuclear crisis. The window of opportunity for effective diplomacy with a major Iranian policy-making figure of the new parliament may soon close if there is not a decisive set of negotiations with the aim of finalizing a comprehensive incentive package in exchange of limiting – but not eliminating – Iran’s uranium enrichment. With Larijani’s possible run for presidency in the 2009 presidential elections, the need for laying the ground for effective negotiations is more important than ever before.

U.S. lawmakers can play a vital role in this diplomatic process. Congress can take advantage of the power shift within Iran’s political system by reaching out to Iranian lawmakers with the aim of empowering the pragmatists and marginalizing the hardliners. How the U.S. government handles Iran in the coming months will be crucial not only for the future direction of Iran’s nuclear program, but also for America’s interest in the region.

Prof. Babak Rahimi teaches Iranian and Islamic Studies at University of California San Diego. He is currently conducting field research in Iran.




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