Thursday, December 10, 2009
By Robin Wright
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Oddly, President Obama's West Point speech never probed the critical long-term stakes for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three issues central to the outcome should enter the public debate as his strategy is launched.
The first is America's place in the world in the 21st century. Officials from Moscow to Beijing, from Iran's revolutionaries to Somalia's pirates, will scrutinize this last-ditch U.S. effort -- and weigh their actions, reactions and interactions with the United States on how Obama's effort fares.
Failure by the world's mightiest military power, backed by the largest military alliance, to uproot the Taliban -- a force without an air force, armored corps, long-range artillery, satellite intelligence or powerful foreign backer -- would vividly illustrate the limits of U.S. power. The consequences could dwarf those of the defeat in Vietnam, even if the loss of life was smaller.
The era of a unipolar or uni-power world is effectively over, but a U.S. failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan could mark its formal end, just as it did for the bipolar world when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. Indeed, the period from Vietnam to Afghanistan -- with withdrawals under pressure from Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon and warlords in Somalia along the way -- could come to be seen as the period marking the demise of American power.
And not just "gun" power. At its core, American power is also supposed to be about moral power -- using might to confront, contain or prevent fascist, totalitarian or unjust regimes from unacceptable aggression, repression or injustice. American power has been abused. Neither party has clean hands. But few other nations have been willing or able to assume that role.
U.S. standing in the Islamic world is also at stake. The historic rule of thumb is that winners have influence; losers don't. Winners get to set standards. Their ideas get more attention. Their leaders gain greater authority.
And the outcome of the U.S. confrontation with various branches of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is pivotal to the future of the Islamic world. Almost a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim world is at a crossroads. Polls show key Muslim societies are increasingly rejecting extremism -- even if respondents are still not enamored of the United States. Vast numbers of Muslims now recognize that Bin Ladenism can't provide answers to everyday challenges such as education, housing, jobs and health care. There's an air of fatigue about al-Qaeda; it's becoming somewhat passé. The search is on for something better.
U.S. strategy in South Asia is now based not only on defeat of the forces behind the Sept. 11 attacks; it's also designed to help build credible alternatives to extremist ideologies and governance. Winning on this front in Pakistan and Afghanistan is as important -- and potentially harder -- than the military campaign. The winner is likely to have greater sway among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. And "winner" means not so much the United States as the principles, such as more accountable government, modern education and economic opportunity from legitimate trades.
Finally, U.S. interests in the wider region are also at stake, notably on two fronts.
Obama's strategy will deeply affect India, the world's largest democracy. Long-standing tensions between Pakistan and India have taken the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than any conflict has since World War II -- and still could, since Pakistan has failed to contain extremists responsible for terrorist atrocities in India, including the Mumbai attacks last year. U.S. failure to help nuclear Pakistan expand or shift its military focus from India to the more immediate threat from its internal extremists risks allowing those tensions to deepen.
Just as worrisome are the stakes with Iran, which borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become for Iran what Iraq once was: a surrogate battlefield with the United States. Once Afghanistan's rival, Shiite-dominated Iran has reportedly supplied the same weapons and explosives to Sunni Taliban fighters that it provided Shiite militias in Iraq, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend -- at least for now.
Iran manipulated (and often fueled) the problems that ensued after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the process, it has become a regional superpower rivaled only by Israel. U.S. failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan would further strengthen Iran's position as its increasingly authoritarian government cracks down on a legitimate opposition movement and threatens to expand its nuclear program.
Many Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan. We're alarmed at the cost in human life to all sides, the drain on our national treasury and armed forces -- not to mention on the Afghan people -- and the length of this conflict. We have doubts that the fast-paced initiative Obama has proposed will work. But as U.S. actions are evaluated over the next 18 months, we should remember that the outcome will determine America's goals and standing far beyond the South Asian theater for years to come.
Robin Wright is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." A former diplomatic correspondent for The Post, she has reported on Afghanistan since the 1980s.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Dec. 07, 2009
By Robin Wright
A new round of campus protests in Iran on Monday served up a sharp reminder that there's plenty of life left in the opposition Green Movement. Six months after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set off an unprecedented wave of political turmoil in the Islamic Republic, the regime was clearly taking no chances: Thousands of police, Revolutionary Guards troops and religious vigilantes closed off universities and fired tear gas at student marchers in Tehran, as the government cut off cell phone and internet access and forbade reporters from covering opposition demonstrations timed to coincide with the official observance of National Students Day.
Students Day commemorates the death of three students in protests against the Tehran visit of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953, following the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew a democratically elected government and restored the monarchy. And the protests reflect the now-familiar Green Movement tactic of using the Islamic Republic's established calendar of official protest days as opportunities to mobilize displays of opposition to the regime. On Monday, that included once-taboo slogans demanding the ouster of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and challenging the very principle of an Islamic state. (See pictures of the latest Iran student protests.)
The latest street demonstrations are a reminder that the Green Movement is a diverse, even unlikely coalition that operates in three different layers. Its leading figures include pillars of the Revolution such as two former presidents and a prime minister, as well as longtime dissidents and opponents of the very idea of an Islamic republic.
The protest face of the movement is dominated by younger activists who are waging a wider civil disobedience campaign that includes dozens of less visible tactics, from commercial boycotts to wearing green en masse at televised sports events and graffitiing slogans on surfaces ranging from buses to banknotes.
On the eve of Monday's demonstrations, security forces arrested more than 20 members of the so-called Mourning Mothers, an informal group of women whose children were killed in the post-election turmoil. The Mothers had launched weekly demonstrations in Tehran's Laleh Park, according to human rights groups.
"The Green Movement belongs to the youth," says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled filmmaker who claims to speak for the opposition. "When the revolution took place, Iran's population was 30 million; now it's 70 million and most are young. They want freedom. They want to fall in love. They want the opposition. They want a normal life. " Anti-regime activities are often not coordinated; many initiatives emerge from small groups or individuals — "ordinary people who invite others to go to the streets, little people with charisma, like artists or writers who invite people to go to the streets," Makhmalbaf says.
The second layer of opposition comprises traditional politicians who've fallen out with the present leadership, among them three of the movement's key leaders: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister whose defeat in the presidential election by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June prompted cries of electoral fraud and widespread unrest; former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who also ran in the June 12 election; and reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.
Of the three, Karroubi has proven the most daring in his willingness to challenge those in power, especially when he went public with accusations that political prisoners were being raped and torture. Mousavi also remains defiant, vowing over the weekend that Iranians would continue to challenge those who "confiscate" their vote. Yet none of these three luminaries has provided a plan of action for the opposition. "The reformist leaders have not yet measured up," says Shaul Bakhash, George Mason University Iran expert and author ofThe Reign of the Ayatollahs. "They haven't shown adequate dynamism, courage or the ability to think strategically."
The third layer of opposition consists of feisty clerics who challenge the actions of the current regime. An increasingly hostile public debate among mullahs who support and oppose the regime reflects deep divisions in the world's only modern theocracy. The debate includes questions about the role of a Supreme Leader granted the absolute powers (and implied infallibility) of a political pope, and even the very principle of theocratic rule. The fact that the clergy, deemed guardians of the Islamic Revolution, are engaging in this debate also provides cover and legitimacy for the wider public to challenge the regime.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Nov. 23, 2009
By Robin Wright
After more than five months of going it alone, Iran's opposition Green Movement is reaching out to the United States for help. Via public and private channels, the Obama Administration has received several appeals in recent weeks to take a stronger stand against human-rights abuses in Iran, avoid military action and impose more aggressive and rapid-fire sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and its vast business interests.
The opposition's outreach comes as the Administration weighs the next move in its diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Tehran has effectively rebuffed a confidence-building deal that would ship out the bulk of Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile to be converted into fuel rods for a medical-research reactor — which would also have added about a year to the time frame within which Iran could weaponize nuclear material. The deal would have offered more time for longer-term diplomatic negotiations. As a result, President Obama has begun trying to rally international support for a new round of sanctions. (See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran's election.)
Washington has struggled since the disputed June 12 presidential election to figure out how to engage the regime without undermining the opposition. Now it has begun to hear answers from the Green Movement itself.
The most public message has come from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the exiled revolutionary filmmaker turned dissident who claims to speak on behalf of the Green Movement, during a Washington visit last week. He told U.S. officials and Iran experts Thursday that the military action would only strengthen the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. "Dialogue is definitely better than war," said Makhmalbaf. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)
At the same time, Makhmalbaf warned that the West should not "trample" on the Green Movement by fully embracing Iran's regime if it eventually reverses course on nuclear talks. He and other prominent opposition members are also urging the White House to more actively condemn the brutal crackdown since the election that gave Ahmadinejad a second term despite opposition claims of widespread fraud. The limited reaction has allowed the regime to believe the outside world is indifferent to what is happening inside Iran, he said.
Makhmalbaf said even modest steps are important, such as publicly mentioning opposition victims like Neda Agha-Soltan, the student shot dead during the June uprising who became an opposition symbol. (Obama mentioned her death, but not by name, the day he won the Nobel Peace Prize.) Washington also needs to recognize and respond to opposition statements, like the apology from Iran's leading dissident cleric, Ayatullah Ali Montazeri, for the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover. Montazeri was once heir-apparent to the revolution's founder, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his gesture on the 30th anniversary of the seizure was a risky step that passed largely ignored by Washington.
As the Administration begins lobbying its international partners for punitive new measures against Iran, Makhmalbaf and other opposition figures have urged the U.S. to focus primarily on the Revolutionary Guards. The élite unit is a growing political and economic behemoth, and its leadership is critical in propping up the troubled regime. They are not supporting other measures under consideration, like curbs on gasoline imports Iran relies on for domestic consumption, because these would mainly hurt the Iranian public, opposition figures have told U.S. officials.
"We need certain sanctions to hurt the regime, but not the people," said Makhmalbaf, who urged Washington to quickly impose a series of sanctions on the Guards since incremental steps allow them time to develop alternatives. The award-winning filmmaker, who now lives in Europe, said he was sent to Washington by the opposition; his talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was attended by senior officials from the National Security Council and the State Department.
Iran's refusal to accept the deal that required shipping out nuclear material for reprocessing in Russia and France, say Iranian analysts, is partly linked to the divide between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The President, they say, is more interested than the Supreme Leader is in improving relations with Washington, a major coup that could earn Ahmadinejad badly needed international legitimacy. But he refuses to compromise on Iran's right to enrich uranium, a position with strong support from across the Iranian political spectrum.
Khamenei, meanwhile, is said to reject improving relations with the United States as anathema to essence of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, analysts say he was initially more open to a compromise on a short-term deal.
Ironically, however, one reason among others for Iran's reversal after initially approving the deal was that Green Movement leaders had criticized it. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate who claims to have won the disputed election, criticized the proposal negotiated by Ahmadinejad's team at Vienna, warning that if implemented, it would negate the work of thousands of Iranian scientists. Opposition figures and analysts say his response was merely an attempt to play spoiler and prevent the regime from benefiting politically from a deal with the West. Still, nuclear diplomacy with the West has effectively become a political football in Tehran, complicating President Obama's quest for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Nov. 2, 2009
By Robin Wright
A new showdown looms in Iran this week, as the regime and its intrepid opposition gear up for what may be their biggest street confrontation since the protests that followed the disputed June 12 presidential election. The latest face-off is scheduled for Wednesday, when Iran commemorates the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy takeover by radical students. In an ironic twist, however, instead of the traditional festival of America-bashing, students across the country are being summoned to mark the event with a protest against their own government.
For three decades, students have massed every Nov. 4 at the sprawling former U.S. embassy — now a Revolutionary Guards training center and museum — that occupies several blocks in downtown Tehran to commemorate the young revolution's confrontation with the world's mightiest power. On that day in 1979, revolutionary students stormed the compound and seized 52 U.S. diplomats, holding them hostage for 444 days. The regime has long supported the event, officially dubbing it Pupils' Day and giving students the day off from school to attend.
Last year students paraded down the streets shouting anti-American slogans and burning an effigy of President George W. Bush. Now, for many Iranian students, the real issue is no longer the U.S. This year opposition leaders are calling on Iranians young and old to parade in front of the graffiti-covered embassy walls against their controversial President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.
The world's only modern theocracy is clearly nervous. The regime announced last week that it would mobilize 3 million of its supporters to prevent the normally raucous festival from turning into a sustained anti-regime protest. The paramilitary Basij vigilantes will be deployed to keep the commemoration on message and to silence protesters. And, escalating the stakes, Ayatullah Khamenei warned last week that questioning the election results will now be treated as a crime.
An Iranian opposition website has published what it claims is a top-secret letter from the Islamic Guidance Ministry to the press urging censorship. "Given the possibility that groups opposed to the regime may engage in actions on the eve of Nov. 4, the anniversary of the seizure of America's den of spies, and may deviate public opinion from the ceremonies on the national day of struggle against world arrogance," the letter reads, "I request that you refrain from disseminating any news, photo or topic which can lead to tension in the society or breach public order."
The opposition has so far refused to back down. In a statement on Oct. 31 on his website, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi called the Nov. 4 anniversary the greenest day of the year — in reference to the color adopted by his movement. The commemoration, he said, should be a "rendezvous so we would remember anew that among us it is the people who are the leaders."
In the wake of the ruthless crackdown that ended last summer's mass protests, the opposition has begun converting national holidays — when the public is expected to turn out on the streets — into opportunities for political protests. But the Nov. 4 commemoration is particularly sensitive because it symbolizes the power of the regime's biggest long-term problem — Iran's youth.
Young people were in the vanguard of the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and in the embassy siege, they were way out in front of Ayatullah Khomeini and the revolutionary leadership. Students from three Tehran campuses plotted to seize the American diplomatic mission after the Carter Administration admitted the ailing, exiled Shah for medical treatment, suspecting that Washington wanted to restore Pahlavi to power, as it had in the coup of 1953. The student action only won the support of the new Islamic regime days after the fact.
The only other major challenge to the regime in 30 years was the 1999 campus protest that led to bloody clashes. Some 70% of Iran's population is now under age 30 due to a post-revolution baby boom spurred in part by clerics calling on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation. But the first generation of children born under the revolution has come back to haunt the regime. Their political apathy in 2005 may have helped put Ahmadinejad in office, but their current activism in myriad forms has fueled a vibrant civil disobedience campaign that the authorities have failed to suppress.
In an unprecedented public rebuke, mathematics student Mahmoud Vahidnia last week criticized Iran's Supreme Leader to his face for living in a bubble, limiting freedom of speech and press and allowing élites to get a stranglehold on power through institutions like the Council of Guardians. State-controlled television terminated the broadcast of the meeting between Khamenei and Iran's academic élite, but thousands have since seen parts of Vahidnia's bold criticism on YouTube. Sporadic applause can be heard in the background.
The Nov. 4 anniversary previously had a unique role in Iran's foreign policy, often serving as a barometer of public opinion. During the past eight years, the rallies were intensely anti-American because of fears that Bush would launch a military attack. But in 1998, under reformist President Mohammed Khatami, one of the three masterminds of the embassy takeover offered an olive branch: Our dealings with the hostages were not directed against the American people and not even against the hostages themselves, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh told that year's commemoration. Although Iranians still felt wronged by U.S. policy, he said the time had come to invite all the hostages to return to Iran as guests. Regarding relations with America, Iranians must look to the future and not to the past. He received thunderous applause.
Many involved in the embassy siege later became leaders of the reform movement. Asgharzadeh went on to become a member of Tehran's city council. Mohsen Mirdamadi, another of the three masterminds, became a member of parliament and leader of Iran's largest reform party. As chairman of Iran's foreign affairs committee, he called for improving relations with the U.S. And as Iran prepares to commemorate the event that he helped plan, Mirdamadi today is among the more than 100 political prisoners who are awaiting the outcome of a mass show trial on charges of trying to subvert the revolution.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sept 28, 2009
By Robin Wright
What a difference a few months can make.
In early June, Iran was at the apex of its power on the world stage. Aid to insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon had helped convert Tehran into a regional superpower rivaled only by Israel. At home, hard-liners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had consolidated control of parliament, the judiciary and the military and marginalized reform parties.
This week, however, Iran heads into talks in Geneva with the U.S. and five other world powers more vulnerable at home and abroad than at any time since the revolution's chaotic early days. Despite defiant talk and a weekend display of military force, the world's only theocracy begins its most important diplomatic engagement in three decades in real trouble. (See international protests of Iran's election.)
Over the past four months, the Islamic Republic has faced two game changers. First, the June 12 presidential election spawned a vibrant new opposition movement, a political schism among the theocrats and popular protests that deeply undermined the hard-line regime's legitimacy among its constituents. Second, the gotcha revelation on Sept. 25 about a secret nuclear plant put Tehran on the defensive with both its enemies and allies — and undermined Ahmadinejad's U.N. media blitz, which had been designed to boost his post-election image. (See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)
Now those challenges are converging, tightening the squeeze on the regime. Over the weekend, Iran's new opposition chose sides in the nuclear debate — and sided with the world. "The Iranian Green Movement does not want a nuclear bomb, but instead desires peace for the world and democracy for Iran," said a statement issued by filmmaker and opposition spokesman Mohsen Makhmalbouf. "The Green Movement in Iran furthermore understands the world's concerns and in fact has similar concerns itself."
That's a first. In the past, Iranians rallied around even unpopular governments when confronted by the outside world. Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran helped a young revolution already running out of steam consolidate its hold on power and survive eight years of the Middle East's deadliest modern conflict. Tehran's quest for nuclear energy, widely embraced as a key to development in the 21st century, has also long been a potent unifier of Iran's disparate political factions. Persian national pride has been a powerful force for millennia.
But the revelation of a hidden nuclear facility near the holy city of Qum that is run by Iran's élite Revolutionary Guards — and the threat of more sanctions if Tehran does not cooperate with the new U.S.-sponsored diplomatic initiative — appear to have deepened the political fissures rather than led Iranians to close ranks.
The critical unknown is whether the escalating pressures will lead the theocracy to compromise or make it even more obstinate once it reaches the negotiating table.
The regime's response on Sunday was to flex its military muscle. To shouts of "Allahu akbar," the Revolutionary Guards test-fired short-range missiles to demonstrate that Iran has the necessary arsenal to defend itself. "We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner, and it doesn't make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression," said General Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, according to Iran's state media. The tests were successful, with the short-range missiles hitting their targets, he said. (Read "Iran Standoff: Is a Nuclear-Free Middle East a Pipe Dream?")
Further tests of longer-range missiles are expected in the days running up to the historic meeting between American, French, British, Russian, Chinese and German diplomats and their Iranian counterparts.
Thumbing its nose at the world may not help, since even the skeptical Russians suggested last week that further sanctions may be in order if Iran does not come clean about the secret facility and other older questions about Tehran's nuclear program. "The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC News on Sunday.
Just how bad will be determined after talks begin on Oct. 1 in Geneva's historic Hotel de Ville. "If we don't get the answers that we are expecting and the changes in behavior that we are looking for, then we will work with our partners to move for sanctions," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS on Sunday. "The burden has now shifted ... They have to come to this meeting on Oct. 1 and present convincing evidence as to the purpose of their nuclear program. We don't believe that they can present convincing evidence that it's only for peaceful purposes. But we are going to put them to the test."
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Rethinking our Iran strategy: The Islamic Republic's revolution may be at a crossroads. It's a possible opening for the U.S.
Los Angeles Times
By Robin Wright and Robert Litwak
Three decades of assumptions about
The Obama administration's offer to engage was the right idea. But the theocracy's brutal crackdown on the opposition since the June 12 presidential election, followed by the purge of senior politicians in show trials and an alarming increase in general executions, marks a turning point for
The three most important revolutions of the 20th century -- for their political innovation and impact -- happened in the
The shift in both the Soviet Union and China was partly tied to the maturation of revolutions, as Crane Brinton outlined in "The Anatomy of Revolution," which leads to the final stage of "convalescence" that plays out over years, even decades. The Islamic Republic is on the same trajectory. Its current uprising pits those trying to transform
In their civil disobedience since June, millions of Iranians also have indicated that they're ready for normalcy. The
The pattern of revolutions suggests, however, that a catalyst is required to trigger the critical transition. The spark has traditionally been one of three factors: a geo-strategic challenge, economic necessity or political exigency. In other words, a revolution needing to convert an enemy into an ally to survive.
In the 1960s,
Neither Stalin nor Mao became
In the early 1990s, Iran offered the most lucrative petroleum deal in its history to Conoco, to develop offshore oil and gas fields to help pay for postwar reconstruction and modernization demanded by a war-weary population.
In 2001, after the
Under the current circumstances, it doesn't.
Diplomacy centered primarily on
And if that diplomatic tactic doesn't work, simply slapping on more international sanctions (given stonewalling by
Yet a military strike is also likely to backfire, instead rallying Persian nationalism around the regime, just as Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion mobilized support for the revolution at a time it was running out of steam.
The Obama administration would be well-advised to step back and recalculate what conditions would lead
Robin Wright, author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the
Monday, August 17, 2009
The brothers Larijani — often referred to as the Kennedys of Iran — are emerging as a powerful counterweight to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from within the conservative camp. And unlike other Ahmadinejad rivals, the Larijanis are fully endorsed by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.
The Aug. 15 appointment of Sadegh Larijani as head of Iran's judiciary puts Larijanis at the head two of the three branches of Iran's government. Older brother Ali Larijani is speaker of parliament.
Over the past 30 years, the five sons of a senior cleric have been a major force in Iran's power structure, either serving in or running for positions including the presidency and various diplomatic roles as well as posts in Cabinet ministries, the Council of Guardians, the legislature, the powerful National Security Council, the judiciary, Iran's top broadcasting authority and even the Revolutionary Guards. Over the past year, they have consolidated their power.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated mathematician, has been a member of parliament, Deputy Foreign Minister and adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Bagher Larijani, a physician, has served as Deputy Minister of Health. And Fazel Larijani, a diplomat, spent years posted in Ottawa. All five are bearded and bespectacled.
Sadegh Larijani takes over Iran's judiciary at a critical moment, as the government mounts mass trials of opposition supporters who stand accused of fomenting a foreign-backed velvet revolution against the regime. The third such trial opened Aug. 16. A comparatively junior cleric for such a high-profile job (he was born in 1960, month unknown), Sadegh served for eight years on the 12-member Council of Guardians, the powerful body that vets legislation, political candidates and election results.
His appointment to a five-year term reflects the Supreme Leader's trust in the Larijanis amid unprecedented public anger over the disputed June 12 presidential election, and the alleged torture and rape of protesters arrested in a brutal crackdown.
"Sadegh Larijani's ties to the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies provide ample reason to believe that he will use his new powers to crack down even further on human rights and civil liberties than did his predecessor," Mehdi Khalaji wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
His skepticism may be based on the fact that the Larijanis were powerful critics of Iran's reform movement during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami. But the Larijanis also reflect a nuanced but significant difference from the hard-line principlist movement of President Ahmadinejad. In Iran's ever shifting political spectrum, the brothers are today considered pragmatic conservatives.
"Ten years ago, the Larijanis would have been considered arch hard-liners," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But the spectrum has moved so far right in recent years that now, compared with Ahmadinejad, they appear somewhat moderate."
The differences between the Larijanis and Ahmadinejad are both political and personal. Ali Larijani ran for President against Ahmadinejad in 2005; he came in sixth with less than 6% of the vote. Khamenei then appointed him head of the National Security Council, a body that reports to the Supreme Leader rather than the President, who has just one seat on the council.
In that capacity, Larijani was the lead negotiator with the international community on Iran's disputed nuclear program. Although he took a tough line on Iran's right to enrich uranium as part of its energy program, he was also interested in a deal that would prevent deepening Iran's isolation, according to diplomats involved in the talks.
But Ali Larijani often found himself at odds with Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric, and finally quit in 2007, underscoring the political divide even among the conservatives. "They were ideological differences," Larijani told an Iranian news agency. "I thought that the differences would be damaging and thus I resigned." Larijani ran for parliament last year, and was elected speaker.
After the June election protests erupted, Ali Larijani was also one of the few regime officials to publicly warn that many Iranians questioned Ahmadinejad's victory. "The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants," Larijani said in comments posted on an Iranian website.
In a further jab at Ahmadinejad, the speaker warned last week that government ministers should have the qualifications necessary for their positions. Cabinet picks require parliamentary approval, and the legislature has previously rejected Ahmadinejad's picks for being unqualified. The vote on his Cabinet nominations will be the first major test for Ahmadinejad as he begins his second and final term.
Thus far, however, all the Larijanis have heeded political boundaries. Ali Larijani last week announced that a parliamentary investigation proved that some detainee claims of torture were false. "On the basis of precise and comprehensive investigations conducted about the detainees at Kahrizak and Evin prisons, no cases of rape and sexual abuse were found," he told parliament. The probe lasted less than a week.
"Larijani has been a very ineffective speaker," says Iran scholar Shaul Bakhash. "[Parliament] has been a virtual no-show on all issues during his leadership ... And his investigation of allegations of mistreatment of prisoners was clearly slapdash."
The ill will between the Larijanis and Ahmadinejad is also rooted in a social class divide, according to Sadjadpour. The Larijani brothers are the progeny of the late Grand Ayatullah Mirza Hashem Amoli, a marja whose interpretations of Islam are considered binding by a following of devout Shi'ite Muslims. Some of his sons have also married into prominent clerical families, giving them status beyond politics. Ali Larijani represents Qum, the center of Islamic scholarship in Iran, in parliament. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, is the son of a blacksmith.
Over the years, the Larijani brothers have expressed realist positions on Iran's relations with the United States. Mohammad Javad Larijani, who did doctoral work in mathematics at the University of California, has often urged an end to tensions. "Our country's relations with America are important in terms of our national interests," he said in a public debate a decade ago. "We should regard our relations with America realistically and without extremism, and weigh them with the criteria of our national interests."
But critics also charge that the Larijani brothers have risen so far as much from opportunism as political savvy. Many analysts believe Ali Larijani may be positioning himself to run for the presidency again after Ahmadinejad's term ends in 2013. "They are nakedly ambitious. Their overarching principle seems to be to position themselves wherever power lies," said Sadjadpour. "If the Shah were still in power they'd be coveting him. And if Iran evolves into a democracy they'll try and reinvent themselves as progressive democrats."