The resignation of Ali Larijani as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator — and his replacement as such by Ahmadinejad acolyate Saeed Jalili, who was 14 years old when the Shah fell in 1979, has limited experience and is reportedly prone to communicate via turgid lectures rather than discussion — has been widely interpreted as a victory for the president and a setback for more pragmatic elements. My previous post was guided by these assessments. But I couldn’t help thinking that reports of the escalating factional battle in Tehran over the past year or so, and the fact that a new president is to be elected there in 2009, might signal that something more complex underway. As Ali Ansari, who tracks developments closely, told the Christian Science Monitor, “Larijani was most obviously Khamenei’s man,” says Ansari. “There is something not right here, otherwise [Khamenei] would be in there to protect his man.”
And by all accounts Larijani’s move has shocked Tehran’s political class, drawing a flurry of protest from the legislature (directed against Ahmadinejad) and of speculation as to his motives. As ever, the Tehran political scientist Kaveh L. Afrasiabi offered an intriguing explanation in Asia Times — one that reads the political significance of the change quite differently. He suggests that the move obviously reveals a state of open political warfare between the president and Larijani, but that Larijani continues to enjoy the confidence of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In fact, when nuclear talks with EU chief Javier Solana resume on Tuesday with Jalili in Larijani’s old role, Larijani will still be present, according to Iranian officials, “as the representative of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution.”
If so, then far from throwing his weight behind Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader may instead be empowering the opponents of the president who are making clear that they can’t work under him. Ahmadinejad was reportedly enraged that President Vladimir Putin presented Russia’s new offer not only to the president, but also went over his head and presented it directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. (Ahmadinejad has since denied that an offer was made, which seems a little ridiculous since not only Larijani, but the Supreme Leader himself had acknowledged that Russia had indeed made a proposal which Iran would study and respond to.)
Afrasiabi sees the developments as signaling a widening split over handling the nuclear issue: “Various commentators, especially in Europe and the United States, have been quick in interpreting Larijani’s resignation as a ‘bad omen’ reflecting a triumph for hardliners led by Ahmadinejad,” he writes. “But that is simplistic and ignores a more complex reality in the Iran’s state affairs. The quest for greater centralization of nuclear decision-making has met a contradictory response in, on the one hand, the move for more direct input by Khamenei, and, on the other hand, a parallel effort by Ahmadinejad to gain greater control of decision-making.”
The problem, of course, as Afrasiabi notes, is that even if Larijani enjoys the confidence of the Supreme Leaders and the legislature, that fact that he’s no longer the sole voice negotiating with the West creates an untenable situation. If Iran is sending mixed messages across the negotiating table, the likelihood of paralysis grows. And with it, the danger of war. Curiously enough, after meeting Putin, Khamenei reportedly convened the country’s top leadership and warned them that an attack by the U.S. was a possiblity that should be taken very seriously. Acknowledgement of this danger is exceedingly important, of course, but to the extent that Iran’s factional power struggle is fought out over the handling of the nuclear issue, it plays into the hands of the most hard-element in Washington that is desperately pushing for war.
If, indeed, the picture painted by Afrasiabi of the Supreme Leader continuing to prefer a pragmatic line is correct, it may not be enough to send his own representative (Larijani) to negotiate with the West alongside the representative of President Ahmadinejad; he would need to send his representative to negotiate instead of Ahmadinejad’s man.