Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 May - 4 June 2008
Issue No. 899
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

One step less

As Larijani becomes the new parliament speaker, Iran's new conservatives edge closer to their presidential ambitions, Rasha Saad reports

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US and Iraqi soldiers on patrol in Mosul during a sweep against jihadists in Nineveh province which resulted in the arrest of 1,030 suspects

Iranian conservatives picked Ali Larijani, one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's potential political rivals, for the influential post of speaker in Iran's new parliament Sunday. Larijani will not only become head of the legislature but also the main challenger to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections. Larijani came well behind Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race.

Larijani, who quit as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in 2007 amid differences with Ahmadinejad over how to handle the standoff with the West, received 161 votes against 50 for former speaker and current MP Gholamali Haddadadel. "The new parliament will have a different mentality as its new speaker will never want to be blamed for an unconditional partnership with the government at a time of the heaviest burden of weak management," reformist daily Etemad Melli said in an editorial.

Larijani's political career started in the mid-1980s as culture minister under president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. In 1994, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made him head of the state television network IRIB. A decade later, Khamenei appointed him as advisor in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). An opponent of the reform movement led by president Mohamed Khatami, Larijani ran in the 2005 presidential elections but failed to make it into the second round. Nevertheless, election winner Ahmadinejad appointed him secretary of the SNSC and chief nuclear negotiator.

Despite taking a tough stance in negotiations with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Larijani sought to avoid escalation of the nuclear row with the West. In October 2007, he resigned because of differences with Ahmadinejad over the handling of the nuclear issue. After his resignation, Larijani became a critic of the president. Following his landslide win in the March parliamentary elections, he became leader of a new conservative faction whose members used to support Ahmadinejad but who gradually distanced themselves from him.

Although ideologically on the same wavelength as Ahmadinejad -- loyal to Islam and the country's clergy system -- he is considered a symbol of a new and more moderate political wave with whom the West could at least engage in a dialogue. "Ideologically, I have no differences with Ahmadinejad, but we have indeed differences in style, approach and management," Larijani said in an interview.

Iran's new parliament sat for the first time Tuesday with an overwhelming moderate conservative majority expected to be more critical of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's foreign and economic policies. Reformist and conservative politicians alike have accused Ahmadinejad of provoking inflation of close to 25 per cent by ploughing large sums of cash into the economy to fund local infrastructure projects.

The outcome of the March election for the 290-seat parliament reflected widespread public disillusionment with inflation and unemployment. It ended a period of domination by Ahmadinejad's core supporters. As part of a blame game, Ahmadinejad and cabinet ministers have contested conventional economic wisdom that high liquidity growth is a direct cause of inflation, blaming instead the policies of the previous reformist government.

Ahmadinejad has also astonished observers by claiming that his efforts aim to root out a powerful political and economic mafia at the heart of Iranian politics. "It took us two years to convince the government that the country's economy needs a theory," conservative deputy Mohamed Reza Bahonar was quoted by the Kargozaran newspaper as saying Monday. "As for inflation, we argued that an economic theory should be eventually accepted but the executive officials said, 'these theories only slow us down and we could work without them'," Bahonar said.

Ahmadinejad has been moving to exercise greater control over policymaking and since becoming president has made nine changes to his cabinet. "The man is simply unpredictable," said former finance minister Davoud Danesh- Jafari about Ahmadinejad. Danesh- Jafari is one of seven ministers who have quit the Ahmadinejad cabinet, together with the vice-president for planning and budget and the Central Bank governor.

Several deputies have also distanced themselves from the president. Ahmadinejad, however, urged the new parliament to work with his government. "In the one year remaining we should cooperate with each other... Having different opinions is normal, but the main issue is that we pursue common goals," he said in a speech to the assembly, broadcast live on state television.

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