The mullahologists are all atwitter over the “meaning” of the surprise resignation of one of Iran’s most public officials, chief nuclear negotiator and national-security council chief Ali Larijani.
It must mean something, mustn’t it? This is a major figure in the Islamic Republic, who has long harbored presidential ambitions, and has played a key role in some of the regime’s most important policies. He was minister of culture, then head of state broadcasting, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. If such a powerful figure steps down from his position, it must be viewed as a significant event. But what?
Most of the folks who read Iranian tea leaves describe him as an intimate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and a critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With their usual tendency to project Western political models on foreign lands, most commentators have interpreted Larijani’s resignation as a defeat for him, a big win for Ahmadinejad, and an indication that Khamenei has swung around to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s approach to the nuclear question. Thus, al-AP describes Larijani’s departure as “a victory for the hardline president that could push the country into an even more defiant position in its standoff with the West,” because, after all, “Ali Larijani was viewed as more moderate than Ahmadinejad and the two often clashed over how to negotiate with the world on the nuclear issue.” And al-Reuters quotes an unnamed source to the effect that Larijani had been put in a strait jacket by Ahmadinejad. “The president left no more room for Larijani to maneuver and negotiate.”
If that is right, then it’s passing odd that Larijani will remain as the Supreme Leader’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council, and participate in the meetings of Khamenei’s inner circle. One would not be inclined to call that a crushing defeat. Moreover, EU sources reported that Larijani will be part of the Iranian negotiating team that will meet Tuesday with Europe’s foreign minister, Javier Solana. So that straitjacket isn’t all that tight, is it?
Whatever Larijani’s job change may mean, it doesn’t represent a change in policy. The differences between Larijani and Ahmadinejad were only tactical. On the basic question — should Iran suspend its enrichment program — you couldn’t get the tip of a scimitar between the two. Both said repeatedly — as they had to, since the Supreme Leader had laid down the law — that Iran would never abandon enrichment. Theirs was a debate over style. Ahmadinejad wanted to tell the West to go to hell, while Larijani charmed them. Indeed, Larijani was the West’s favorite interlocutor. From EU Solana to a parade of foreign ministers and secret back channels (including Secretary of State Rice’s personal emissary, former Spanish President Felipe Gonzales), Larijani was universally liked. To be sure, he never gave a centimeter, but he was popular. I suppose President Bush would consider him “a good guy,” in the mold of, say, Vladimir Putin.
No doubt Larijani and Ahmadinejad don’t love one another, and their more or less public spat has been going on for quite a while. The ruling class of the Islamic Republic is in the throes of a succession struggle, as Khamenei continues to defy the prediction of his doctors that he would die several months ago, and Larijani and Ahmadinejad, along with other celebrities such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, are major players in that battle, as John Bolton observed on Sunday.
The personnel shift may also be related to the mysterious meeting between Khamenei and Putin a few days ago, about which very little has become public. I am told, in fact, that the Russian president memorized his key message in Farsi, and delivered it in a private meeting with the Supreme Leader, with not even an interpreter present. If you think that is a foolish way to conduct diplomacy, I’m inclined to agree, but then I’m not a former high official of the KGB. Perhaps Putin made some interesting proposal that requires the talents of a Larijani. In that case, Larijani would need more time to devote to the Putin project. It’s not as if his successor at the Supreme National Security Council is a dominant figure in the Iranian political world. Indeed the new guy is generally considered a nobody, which further reinforces the view that we are not witnessing a fundamental political shift in Tehran.
Most likely, in fact, the explanation of Larijani’s departure is fairly mundane: It’s just another in a long series of Iranian maneuvers to buy still more time to pursue their nuclear project, and stave off a new round of sanctions. If the beloved Larijani is moving on, it will take time for the new guy, Saeed Jalili, a diplomat in the foreign ministry, to master his job, and Western governments can be expected to extend him the courtesy of a warm-up. As the Iranians see it, a month saved is a month earned.
The main point is that we still have no Iran policy. Maybe we should offer Larijani a nice job in Foggy Bottom.
– Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.