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Ahmadinejad rivals rise within conservative camp

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't have to look to the street protests or angry Web sites to get a sense of challenges ahead for his disputed second term. There's enough potential heat coming from right inside the country's leadership.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't have to look to the street protests or angry Web sites to get a sense of challenges ahead for his disputed second term. There's enough potential heat coming from right inside the country's leadership.

And these days, that trouble has a name: the brothers Larijani.

Ali Larijani is Iran's urbane parliament speaker and has made no secret of his annoyance with Ahmadinejad's gruff and populist style. Larijani's younger brother, the cleric Sadeq, has been appointed justice chief by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all major affairs.

Khamenei has publicly backed Ahmadinejad all during the violence and political upheavals since the June 12 presidential election. But his choice of Sadeq Larijani could indicate an attempt to rein in Ahmadinejad's reach and cement the loyalty of the powerful Larijani clan to the theocracy.

It's also part of a larger narrative of growing splits between Ahmadinejad backers — including the powerful Revolutionary Guard — and other hard-line factions that question whether he is a potential liability for Iran as the country tries to regain its international standing.

The internal rivalries could leave Iran less able to focus on looming matters such as Washington's offer to open talks before a White House-imposed September deadline.

In at least one way, Iran's political system is not unlike America's presidential chase. One election is barely over when the maneuvering for the next one is under way.

The Larijanis appear to be gaining stature as favored sons of the Islamic leaders — just as Ahmadinejad was elevated from relative obscurity in 2005 — and possibly emerge as a rising political force in coming years, analysts say.

In the meantime, they will have an open forum to either bolster or confront Ahmadinejad. So far, the signs have been toward friction.

"Two branches of authority, the parliament and the judiciary, are now controlled by the Larijanis, this is quite a tenuous position for Ahmadinejad," said Fariborz Ghadar, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ali Larijani's past record with Ahmadinejad has been a tug of war.

He was considered the conservatives' strong candidate in 2005 presidential elections, but fell flat as Ahmadinejad won over poor Iranians with promises of government aid and spoils from the nation's oil wealth.

Later, as Iran's nuclear negotiator, Larijani was the West's pointman for talks until dispute with the president forced him to resign in 2007. Larijani claimed Ahmadinejad's belligerent rhetoric would often unravel any perceived progress in nuclear talks.

The Larijanis represent Iran's elite conservatives with a power base among the hard-line clerics in Qom, the center of Islamic learning in Iran.

There are five brothers, sons of the late Ayatollah Hashem Amoli, a respected Islamic scholar. Mohammad Javad Larijani studied physics at Berkeley and works in the judiciary; Baquer is a physician who heads the Tehran Medical University and the fifth, Fazel, was a cultural attache in Canada.

Ali Larijani has been the most prominent of the siblings. A philosopher who studied Immanuel Kant, he became head of state television at the age of 22, just months after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In the crisis that rocked Iran following Ahmadinejad's proclaimed victory in the June 12 election, Larijani upped the ante when he ordered a parliament committee to investigate claims of abuse and rape of protesters detained in the crackdown.

But within days, Larijani announced the probe had proven the allegations were lies, drawing criticism from the opposition that claimed no serious investigation could've been completed that quickly. There was immediate speculation that Larijani did the politically safe thing — bowing to hard-line forces seeking to squash the proposed investigations to avoid any further embarrassments.

But then last week, Larijani suggested Ahmadinejad's nominees for Cabinet lacked experience and political weight. "A ministry is not a place for tryouts," Larijani was quoted by state radio.

Parliament committees began debate on the Cabinet nominees Sunday and full discussions among lawmakers is expected next week.

Larijani's brother has also used stark words.

As he was sworn in as judiciary chief, Sadeq Larijani said he would prosecute those accused of abusing detained protesters. The opposition says at least 69 people were killed in the crackdown, including some who died in prison of torture by the security forces.

"Nobody should dare ... to violate the right of the citizens," Sadeq Larijani said. "Violators will be put on trial."

Ahmadinejad welcomed the statement. "I am so pleased that the new judiciary chief has announced that he knows no limits in dealing with wrongdoers," he responded, according to state-owned Press TV.

But a move to actually prosecute the security forces would be a slap to Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard, the elite force that led the crackdown on the opposition in the turbulent weeks after the election.

Khamenei knows that a deepening rift between the government and parliament would only compound Iran's problems at a time of out-of-control inflation, skyrocketing costs of living and international sanctions over Iran's uranium enrichment, which the West fears masks nuclear arms ambitions. Iran claims it seeks only energy-producing reactors.

"It's too early to tell if Khamenei will sacrifice Ahmadinejad," says Alireza Nader, an Iranian analyst with the RAND Corp. "Khamenei has to maintain some amount of unity within the conservative camp, he can't see it fractured."

However, it's useful for Khamenei to have competing centers of power, Nader said. The Larijanis can be used as a kind of check and balance on Ahmadinejad, he added.

The difference between Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani is more of style than substance.

Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment said that "10 years ago, the Larijanis would have been considered arch hard-liners themselves on the Iranian political spectrum. But the spectrum has moved so far rightward in recent years that, now vis a vis Ahmadinejad, they appear somewhat moderate."

Ahmadinejad for now is careful not to provoke the Supreme Leader. He tried to test his boundaries last month and appoint a relative to a high government post, but backed down after Khamenei disapproved the posting.

Dubai-based analyst Frederic Tellier with the International Crisis Group predicts that Ahmadinejad's conservative rivals will somewhat self-censor their criticism — simply because their own future depends on the survival of the Islamic republic.

"So it becomes a situation of criticism must be limited, even though some will be expressed," said Tellier.