As US President George W. Bush lobbies European Union leaders for tighter economic sanction against Iran, conservative elements in Tehran are taking steps to moderate the behavior of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Bush was in Slovenia on June 10 for a summit meeting with EU leaders. A variety of media outlets reported that the United States and EU were in agreement that economic sanctions against Iran needed to be strengthened unless Tehran took verifiable action to halt its uranium enrichment activities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was expected to travel to Tehran later this week or early next week for another round of talks aimed at getting Iran to cooperate with the West on the nuclear issue.
While the nuclear program remains a priority concern for members of the governing elite in Iran, their attention is also focused on domestic politics, given that a presidential election is looming in 2009. Concern is mounting among various conservative factions in Tehran that Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach to international politics, combined with his thorough mismanagement of the economy, is undermining the traditionalists' hold on power. While many continue to view Ahmadinejad as the man who can best unite key conservative constituencies -- militant nationalists and Islamic pietists -- traditionalists want to place greater restraints on Ahmadinejad, hoping that he becomes a less divisive figure in Iranian politics.
In recent months, Ahmadinejad has exhibited a penchant for extreme partisanship in the domestic political arena, with his neo-conservative faction showing less and less interest in cooperating with other conservative factions on major policy decisions. Members of the government who have not remained in lock-step with his political agenda have been forced out. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The leaders of other traditionalist factions fear that a continuation of Ahmadinejad's intolerant political course could leave the conservative movement divided during an election year, thus increasing the odds that reformists could regain the presidency in 2009.
The clearest indicator of mounting conservative unease about Ahmadinejad was the election of Ali Larijani as the speaker of parliament. Larijani, who formerly served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, is a representative of what some experts in Tehran have dubbed the New Technocrat faction, which is philosophically conservative and pragmatic in its approach to politics. The New Technocrats -- as opposed to the Old Technocrats, who are now mostly allied to the reformists -- generally have a strong connection to the Revolutionary Guards, as do Ahmadinejad and his neo-conservative allies. In addition to Larijani, prominent New Technocrat leaders include the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaii, and the current Tehran mayor, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf.
Larijani and Ahmadinejad are believed to despise each other, their mutual animosity rooted in their competition for influence over the nuclear program. Although widely acknowledged in Tehran for his skill in defending Iranian interests, Larijani's refusal to go along with Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach led him to resign as chief nuclear negotiator in the fall of 2007. During the months prior to the resignation, Ahmadinejad appeared to deliberately embarrass Larijani on several occasions. In one such instance, in February 2007, Larijani indicated in a speech given at a security conference in Munich that Iran was ready to meet International Atomic Energy Agency conditions concerning Tehran's nuclear program. The very next day, Ahmadinejad dashed such expectations, announcing that "anyone who backed down on Iran's right to a nuclear program would be the most hated man in Iran." [For additional information click here].
Presently, Larijani is viewed as one of the few politicians in Iran with sufficient stature to make Ahmadinejad listen to the complaints and desires of other conservative factions. In accepting the parliamentary speakership, Larijani made two key policy statements designed to put Ahmadinejad on notice. Concerning the nuclear issue, Larijani announced an intention to strengthen parliament's oversight of the government. He went so far as to indicate that he might open an alternate, parliament-controlled channel of communication with the United Nations. In announcing this, Larijani employed hard-line language designed to preempt efforts by Ahmadinejad to undermine the initiative. "Our suggestion is that they (foreign powers) refrain from the dubious diplomatic game of bouncing around Iran's nuclear file between IAEA and the 5+1," Larijani said, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.
"We declare here that the parliament will not allow such duplicity to go on," Larijani continued.
Larijani similarly let Ahmadinejad know that parliament would no longer allow the presidential administration to run roughshod over the legislative process, implementing policies without due input from MPs.
For now, it appears that the conservative factions that are disappointed with Ahmadinejad are not prepared to ditch him; they just want him to tone down his act. This much was evident with the recent publication of an anonymous letter to the editor on a website run by Rezaii, one of the New Technocrat leaders. Observers in Tehran said the publication of a letter by an anonymous writer was highly unusual, and prompted some to speculate that it was linked to the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The letter cast Larijani and Ahmadinejad as colleagues in the same cause, and cautioned against them becoming embroiled in a political rivalry. "What is crucial