Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Larijani's Pragmatist Reputation Faces Severe Challenge

Gareth Smyth, The Financial Times:
While President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad has drawn world headlines with fiery remarks about Israel, Ali Larijani, Iran’s top security official, has in recent months quietly pursued the more pressing issue of Tehran’s nuclear programme. READ MORE

Mr Larijani, 48, was sixth of seven candidates in last June’s presidential election, winning 1.74m votes, 4m behind Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.

But if he lacks the new president’s popular appeal, Mr Larijani has the confidence of a regime loyalist.

Soon after the new president took office, Mr Larijani was appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, replacing Hassan Rowhani, who had led for 18 months Iran’s negotiations with the European Union over its nuclear programme.

Mr Rowhani had faced criticism from conservatives impatient at Iran’s freezing of its nuclear programme as a goodwill gesture to the international community, and while the issue barely surfaced in June’s election, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory increased conservative pressure for Iran to assert its “right” under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful use.

Hence while Mr Larijani continued the suspension of uranium enrichment, he at the same time pursued a strategy of whittling away the suspension step by step, testing the EU while establishing “facts on the ground” ahead of any future settlement. Iran also broadened the talks process to include Russia, already developing Iran’s reactor at Bushehr.

Officials in Iran make clear this strategy is approved by the leadership as a whole, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds last word on matters of state. A well-placed senior official told the FT last month that Mr Larijani answered to Ayatollah Khamenei and not Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who had “no role” in security policy, which was firmly under the supreme leader’s supervision. For Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr Larijani has both a sober temperament and the safe hands of an insider of the Islamic republic.

Born in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, Mr Larijani is son of Ayatollah Mirza-Hashem Amoli and son-in-law of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, killed by a 1979 bombing in the revolution’s early days.

His rise to become Iran’s top security official came after a theoretical and practical grounding.

A student of mathematics and philosophy, Mr Larijani has published books on Immanuel Kant. But he was also acting head of the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980s war with Iraq and has held many ministerial posts. He opened five new television and six new radio stations during 10 years as head of state broadcasting.

Since he took over as secretary of the SNSC, European diplomats have found him cordial in meetings but have no precise sense of his negotiation skills as dealings have been effectively reduced to “talks about talks”.

During the presidential election, he told the FT Iran should seek “partnership” with other countries to establish regional “peace and security” and that dialogue with Washington was possible if the US dropped its “degrading behaviour”. Mr Larijani is seen as a conservative pragmatist rather than a simple ideologue.

With developments around the nuclear programme gathering pace and the chance of a UN Security Council referral growing, this pragmatism faces a severe test in the coming days and weeks.
An intersting bio of Larijani.