Who’s the boss in Iran?
Oct 24th 2007 | NEW YORK
The tea-leaves of an Iranian resignation
IT IS seldom clear precisely who calls the shots in Iran. The resignation of Ali Larijani, secretary of the national security council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator for the past two years, has stirred a flurry of speculation about the direction of Iranian policy, at home and abroad. In truth, no one outside the inner caucus of the country’s leadership knows why he went or what his departure means for policy.
Mr Larijani is widely viewed as clever, pragmatic, and increasingly uncomfortable with the belligerence of Iran’s populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he is no softy, no secularist and no liberal. The son and son-in-law of powerful ayatollahs, he ran the state broadcasting for ten years until 2004; during that time, he was noted for seeking to expunge foreign influence from the airwaves. Before that he had been minister of culture and Islamic guidance. Though appointed to run the national security council by the president, he has long been considered close to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has the last word in every aspect of Iranian policy—and therefore plainly outranks and outguns President Ahmadinejad, who nonetheless captures more of the world’s fearful attention.
In the past two years, the European diplomats who have been negotiating with Mr Larijani over Iran’s nuclear plans feel he is flexible up to a point—and certainly worth trying to convince that the merits of a “grand bargain” (whereby Iran would get financial and trade incentives as well as help in developing nuclear power for civil purposes) outweigh the risks of building a nuclear bomb that have already led to UN sanctions and could even lead to war.
In any event, Mr Larijani has sounded frustrated by the mood of rigidity and bellicosity in his president’s office. An Iranian news agency says he had often offered to resign before. The president may be tightening his grip on the nuclear portfolio. He and Mr Larijani are thought to have repeatedly clashed. When the president declared recently at the UN that the nuclear dossier was “closed”, Mr Larijani’s job plainly began to look irrelevant.
Moreover, the background of his replacement, Saeed Jalili, has alarmed the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany) who have been mandated by the West to negotiate with Iran. A former head of the department for America and Europe in the foreign ministry, he is a close friend and ideological ally of Mr Ahmadinejad and has echoed his refrain that there is really nothing to negotiate about.
But the most notable sign of discord in among Iranian policy-makers was a letter signed by no fewer than 183 out of parliament's 290 members praising Mr Larijani in what was widely seen as a lament for his departure. Mr Khamenei’s foreign-policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, who was foreign minister for nearly 16 years until 1997, also publicly regretted Mr Larijani’s demise—and may well have been expressing his boss’s sentiments.
Plainly, Iran’s leadership is not at one. The reformers, once led by Muhammad Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005, seem demoralised and weak. But the conservatives look increasingly divided between the radicals, led by Mr Ahmadinejad, and more pragmatic figures, such as Mr Larijani. The president is becoming unpopular, largely because he has failed to improve the material lot of the poor who elected him and because his belligerence over the nuclear issue has isolated Iran in the world and made Iranians frightened of the prospect of being bombed. According to one poll, half of those who voted for him in 2005 would not do so again.
The big question is the state of relations between the president and the Supreme Leader. Does their apparent disagreement, at least over the style of nuclear diplomacy, mean that Mr Khamenei is moving towards a more flexible negotiating position—and may perhaps be more amenable to reform in other spheres too? “Khamenei is the new Khatami”, muses Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst of Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York. A rumour is being aired that people around Mr Khamenei may be planning to oust Mr Ahmadinejad when his term ends in 2009—perhaps to replace him with Mr Larijani. But that is no easy task. Mr Larijani bid for the post before, in 2005, and got a paltry 6% of the vote. Mr Ahmadinejad may keep nerves jangling for quite a while yet.