Yesterday, Ali Larijani was elected speaker of the Iranian parliament. In his new perch, the country’s former chief nuclear negotiator is bound to cause grief for his old rival, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The vote on Wednesday was not even close: Larijani walked away with all but 31 of the 263 votes cast as he defeated the incumbent, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. The margin of victory signals that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported Larijani, and with the backing of the clerics, the new speaker will be able to remake the political landscape in Tehran. So expect a period of turbulence in the internal workings of the Islamic Republic. There is already widespread discontent with Ahmadinejad’s policies–especially the economic ones–and Larijani now has the means to stir up trouble. The country, at this moment, has two strong operators pitted against each other in the run up to next June’s presidential elections.
What does this mean for us? The new speaker is by far the more pragmatic of the pair. His emergence, however, is not good for the international community. Larijani’s election is bound to result in added pressure on Washington–coming from Russia, China, and Europe, not to mention the “nonaligned” states–to begin new diplomatic initiatives to see if the Iranians will stop their enrichment of uranium. Yet Larijani is just as hardline as Ahmadinejad when it comes to this issue (just moments after his swearing in, he threatened to cut back Tehran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency).
Global leaders cannot agree that Iran poses a threat even when its president continually speaks about worldwide conflagration and the destruction of the “stinking corpse” that is Israel. There will certainly be even less unity now that it appears that Khamenei has endorsed a more moderate-sounding politician. Iran is still the threat today that it was in the beginning of this week. The only thing that is different is that at this time, with a more capable leader asserting himself, the country will be better able to achieve dangerous goals.
It seems as though Iran is making new inroads with key Arab states almost every few days. Three weeks ago, I wrote that Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie had called for a regional security pact that would include Iran, while I noted on Monday that Libya—which is slowly achieving normalization with western states—had signed ten agreements with Iran and supported the Iranian nuclear position. But Iran’s ever-expanding role in the Middle East got a major boost yesterday, when Ali Larijani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was welcomed in Egypt. Fully normalized Egyptian-Iranian relations—nonexistent since Cairo signed peace with Israel in 1979—appear imminent.
To some extent, revamped Iranian-Egyptian relations have been expected for some time. In 2004, Iran renamed a street in Tehran that it had previously dedicated to Anwar Sadat assassin Khaled Islambouli—a glorified “martyr” in Iran—thus dropping a critical sticking point between the two states. But yesterday’s meeting went well beyond typical diplomatic pleasantries: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit announced his support for Iran’s nuclear activities and called for continued Egyptian-Iranian dialogue on regional issues, including Iraq and Lebanon.
Since the release of the NIE summary on December 3, the case for engagement with Iran has grown in strength again. While engagement has been the principled tool for Western diplomacy with Tehran, has it worked?
Russia is engaging Tehran by providing them with nuclear technology and arms deals. Europe is engaging Iran through dialogue and trade. Saudi Arabia is engaging Iran through invitations to the hajj and diplomatic meetings. Turkey is engaging Tehran much in the same way—trade and talks. The Gulf States are also engaging Tehran. And so is Egypt—despite the lack of diplomatic ties since 1979: according to Iranian sources, Ali Larijani was just there on a visit and cultural ties are deepening. Even the U.S. has engaged Iran—though on a limited basis—over Iraq.
Now, Iranian Foreign Minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, has rebuffed the U.S. after Condoleezza Rice’s latest overture to Tehran, urging the U.S. to change its tone. Tehran’s latest rejection should come as no surprise, given Iran’s consistent rebuff of such offers, beginning with their negative response to the P5+1 in June 2006.
There has been plenty of engagement with Tehran since its nuclear program was exposed in August 2002. The only thing that engagement yielded so far is more time for Tehran to achieve its nuclear ambitions. Still, after the NIE’s publication, some seem more convinced than ever that engagement is the only way forward. They should think twice.
The NIE says very clearly that Iran was busy building a nuclear weapon in 2003. That was not the time of Mahdi-believing isolationist hardliners like current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the height of Western engagement with Tehran, when Mohammad Khatami, then president of Iran, was promoting his “dialogue of civilizations”—while building a nuke under cover. If that is what engagement was yielding in 2003, what exactly is the evidence that engagement today would yield more positive results?
What difference will it make now that Ali Larijani is no longer Iran’s nuclear negotiator? None, at least to Italian PM Romano Prodi. After welcoming Larijani and his successor, the ardent Mahdist Saeed Jalili, to the governmental offices in the heart of Rome, Prodi declared that,
With regard to Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran could contribute in easing tensions and finding fair and satisfactory compromises for all, confirming its ability to play a role in constructing regional stability.
Prodi has great timing! While he was complimenting Iran for its constructive role, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was submitting his biannual report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, in which he reveals that Hizballah’s military capacity has climbed again to its prewar levels—an implicit admission that the UNIFIL mission has so far failed to fulfill its mandate under those resolutions. Ban Ki Moon said, in reference to the need for all Lebanese parties to disarm, that
I also expect the unequivocal cooperation of all relevant regional parties who have the ability to support such a process, most notably the Syrian Arab Republic and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which maintain close ties with the party, for the sake of both Lebanon’s and the wider region’s security, stability, and welfare.
It wouldn’t be wrong to read these two apparently very similar statements in vastly different ways. The UN is saying that Iran and Syria have rearmed Hizballah, and is warning (whatever a UN “warning” may be worth) the countries against continuing to do so. Prodi, whose adventurism made him send 3,000 Italian soldiers to Lebanon in August 2006 without the proper mandate to implement the Security Council resolutions his own government helped draft, is, yet again, ignoring the destabilizing role Iran is playing across the region.
EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana is in Rome today to meet with Said Jalili, the new Iranian nuclear negotiator, and to bid farewell to Jalili’s predecessor, Ali Larijani. It is doubtful that Solana will enjoy the same quality of conversation with Jalili that he experienced with Larijani, whose profound knowledge of Western philosophy made him a valued companion for Solana, according to Brussels rumors. Jalili is expected to deliver his messages more bluntly than Larijani, and that might be a good thing. Larijani had fooled his European interlocutors into believing he was a moderate, inciting his European counterparts to budge while he held his ground. Jalili might not be as sophisticated.
But it is equally doubtful that Iran’s abrupt change of negotiator will induce Europe to shift its posture on the means to curb Iran’s nuclear program. As Italy’s weekly L’espresso reports in a lengthy and detailed piece on sanctions and their effectiveness, Iran still very much gets what it wants. Europeans are keen to circumvent sanctions and have not adopted the necessary practical measures to ensure that the sanctions regime works.
Last year’s bilateral trade volume for Italy and Iran exceeded five billion euros, making Italy the second biggest European trading partner of Iran, after Germany. L’espresso reveals that the Italian office in charge of trade inspections—a branch of the Ministry for Foreign Trade under Minister Emma Bonino—contains only twelve functionaries and four technicians. By comparison, its German equivalent, in charge of export control, has 200 people on its payroll. In practice, this means thousands of contracts annually and larger financial operations on a huge scale. The paucity of human resources invested in monitoring these activities means that almost no effective regulation of them exists. The scope for violations of all kinds is broad.
Whether Europeans will agree to a broader sanctions’ regime in weeks to come remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that what will matter ultimately is Europe’s willingness to give teeth to these measures. Without coupling UN resolutions with the practical means of putting the squeeze on Iran—like, say closely examining the huge business it does every year with Italy, or cutting off or restricting that business—even the toughest sanctions will fail.
Today, Iran’s government announced that Ali Larijani, the country’s chief nuclear negotiator since 2005, had resigned, effective immediately. The official IRNA news agency stated that Saeed Jalili, deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, would probably replace Larijani. Said Gholam-Hossein Elham, a government spokesman: “Larijani has resigned due to personal reasons, but this does not mean changes in policies and programs.”
There may be no change in Iran’s underlying approach, but the surprise resignation heralds a shift in tactics. And this development also indicates there are deep rifts in the regime between hardliners like Larijani and even tougher types like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the less experienced Jalili now in place, Ahmadinejad, who is not even in favor of talks with the West, is expected to exercise more control over nuclear policy.
This change in negotiators occurs at an especially sensitive time. The Security Council is waiting for the results of last-ditch discussions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Moreover, Iran seems to have turned down a compromise offered by President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. Larijani had originally confirmed Russia’s “special message,” but on Thursday, Ahmadinejad denied its existence. In effect, the Iranian president killed Moscow’s attempt at eleventh-hour diplomacy.
So Ahmadinejad is about to get the global confrontation he has wanted for so long. He is now giving the international community no choice but to have it out with him next month, when the Security Council takes up the matter. We should thank him for forcing the issue at this moment, not two years from now when he will have developed the bomb.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”
None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980′s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.