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Speculation grows in Iran about outgoing parliament speaker's possible presidential bid

Political circles in Iran are busy debating where Ali Larijani is headed next following his farewell as parliament speaker after 12 years.
Speaker Ali Larijani attends a session of parliament in Tehran, Iran July 16, 2019. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC17FA4094A0

Ali Larijani presided over the last session of Iran’s tenth parliament on May 21, officially putting an end to his speakership career, which lasted 12 consecutive years, making him the longest-serving speaker in the history of the Islamic Republic. Larijani’s closing speech was a rosy portrayal of the outgoing parliament and a fiery counterattack against critics, who have long accused the assembly of incompetence.

Ever since his announcement last December not to run for the new parliament, Larijani has left Iranian observers wondering where he would go next. Addressing the question, he continued to keep his books closed to the public, telling state TV as recently as last week, “I will return to my first home — academia.” (He will be teaching philosophy.)

Those comments, however, have not ended speculations about a man who has been in the top echelons of power for four decades. Among the sensitive positions in Larijani’s portfolio was the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the influential body of 12 senior officials in charge of vital national security decisions dealing with Iran’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Back in 2005, Larijani was appointed to the post at a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and the West over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Larijani led several rounds of marathon talks with European officials in an effort to resolve the standoff. Nevertheless, his mission remained inconclusive in 2007 after he resigned amid growing differences with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who pushed an anti-West agenda that prompted multiple international sanctions against the Islamic Republic.   

Thirteen years on, a return by Larijani to the SNSC is subject to a heated debate. Ultraconservative Fars News Agency has reported that pushes are being made for Larijani’s appointment to the same chair. Under the Iranian Constitution, the SNSC secretary is picked by the sitting president after receiving the green light from the supreme leader.

The argument has been backed up by rumors about a split between current SNSC Secretary Ali Shamkhani and the government of President Hassan Rouhani. While Shamkhani has maintained an overall moderate approach in line with that of the president, he is believed to have become increasingly detached from the administration in recent months. In an interview last August, Shamkhani demonstrated a visible shift of his earlier stance and the official line of the Rouhani government, after he regretted the Iran nuclear deal in hindsight. 

Still, for a man at Larijani’s level of influence and closeness to the supreme leader, the SNSC secretariat might not be a surprise promotion. In 2005, Larijani tried his luck at the presidency. In a divided conservative camp, he garnered less than 6% of the votes, standing next to the last defeated candidate. But during 16 years following the polls, Larijani’s political leaning has increasingly tilted toward the moderate camp. His unwavering support behind the nuclear deal was the milestone in his political career, marking his divorce from hard-liners. It was manifested famously in the ratification of the 2015 pact on parliament floor during a 20-minute session.

An attempt by Larijani at Iran’s next presidency is perhaps what the Reformists also direly need after they lost their grip on parliamentary seats, replacing an overwhelming majority with a tiny minority. They largely explain the defeat on the pre-vote purge at the hands of the hard-line supervisory body, the Guardian Council. The February elections were also marred by the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, further making matters worse for the small group of Reformists who had made it into the competition.

More powerless than ever before, the Reformists appear to be preparing to repeat the pattern they successfully applied to the 2013 and 2017 presidential votes. With their candidates barred, they did find the solution in endorsing Rouhani, who was known as a moderate figure sharing much of their fundamental tenets. “Today, both Rouhani and Larijani are Reformists, because they have broken free from the conservative discourse,” said Elias Hazrati, secretary-general of the pro-Reform National Trust Party, indicating that the Reformists are ready to throw their full weight behind Larijani.

However, the Reformist camp itself has witnessed a fast-paced popularity decline in recent years. The Rouhani government’s performance, particularly on multiple economic fronts, has led to unprecedented public disillusionment, culminating in the nationwide November protests over increased fuel prices that saw hundreds of Iranians killed. Thus, unless they patch up the gap with the public, the Reformists’ waning public approval could serve Larijani more harm than good. “Larijani holds no chance for the next presidency,” Reformist pundit Sadegh Zibakalam said, because “the last parliamentary elections proved that the public no longer favors the traditional conservatives or the Reformists, and the only ones who go to the ballot box are supporters of very hard-line groups.” 

In the typical power play of Iranian politics, the influential veterans rarely exit the top circle unless they fall from grace. A full Larijani departure from the political scene, therefore, remains highly unlikely. The presidency, on the other hand, also seems to be a tough target.

Another factor at play is some veiled support the supreme leader traditionally lends a favored candidate in the run-up to the presidential polls. While it might be too early for him to make such statements, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid out the overall trajectory in a virtual meeting with Iranian students May 17, where he stressed that “a young” administration could “remedy” the country’s woes, implying that a circulation of the elites is the pathway to progress. He noted, nevertheless, that the next president does not have to be necessarily in his 30s.

Picking up on those remarks, senior Reformist figure Abdullah Nasseri has offered a bleak projection on a Larijani presidency, advising him to think twice. “If Larijani enjoys political intelligence, following the supreme leader’s speech, he ought to refrain from running for president.”

The supreme leader’s speech for a young administration is also expected to boost aspiring candidates and swing the chances in their favor. Three of them have already stuck their necks out: Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, 38; Vice President for Science and Technology Sorena Sattari, 48 — both rising stars of the moderate camp — and former parliamentarian Mehrdad Bazrpash, 40, who could serve as the hard-liners’ ideal candidate. And to defeat them all, the veteran Larijani will undoubtedly have to face an uphill battle.

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