Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Iran: The Jigsaw Puzzle Begins To Come Together As Larijani `Resigns'

The surprise `resignation' of chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani caused a lot of reaction in the western press. What, if anything does it signify and how does it fit in with other developments? Here's how the puzzle appears to be shaping up.

Larijani, a so-called `moderate' with a high profile in the west was replaced by Saeed Jalili, an unknown diplomat in the foreign ministry who is a supposed hardliner and ally of President Ahmadinejad. Both al-Reuters and the AP took this as a sign that the hardliners in Iran had triumphed and that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had come down on Ahmadinejad's side of the standoff with the west.

They forget that in a place like Iran, the Mullahs reign supreme and western political norms don't apply. Everyone dances to the mullah's tune in a fascist theocracy like Iran or they don't dance at all.

If Larijani has suffered such a loss of influence, it's interesting that he's still the Supreme Leader’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council, and thus will participate in the meetings of Khamenei’s inner circle. And according to IRNA, Larijani will still participate in talks with the EU's appeaser-in chief
UN negotiator Javier Solana.

The truth of the matter is that Larijani and Ahmadinejad may be involved in a certain amount of political and personal jockeying as part of the coming change in Supreme Leader as the Ayatollah Khamenei continues to defy his doctors by staying alive, but in terms of actual policy there's maybe a rial's worth of difference between them, especially on the core issue of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Most of what small differences there are involve tactics. Larijani, who famously wrote an article entitled `How I fooled the West' is an unctuous, oily type who favors lying and dissembling to his gullible fellow diplomats until it's too late for the west to do anything about an Iranian nuclear program, while Ahmadinejad likes to gin things up and energize the troops at home by confrontation. Needless to say, Larijani is very popular personally with the likes of Javier Solana, Mohammed El Baradi and the rest of the round of western diplomats fencing with him over the last four years.

This doesn't represent a change in policy so much as a simple personnel change. And Khamanei or whoever replaces him when he dies is still calling the shots. What's more, by replacing Larijani with Jalili, Iran just bought another month or six weeks of time from the west's diplomats while Jalili, the new guy settles in to his new position.

This may very well connect to two other related developments; Putin's visit to the Ayatollah in Iran and a sudden surprise reversal of US policy on missile shields in Europe.

No one's quite sure what Putin had to say to Ayatollah Khamenei in Teheran, but it's important to remember that it occurred just after Israel's raid on Syria's nuclear site, so I think we can speculate.

New contracts for the Russians to complete the Bushehr atomic reactor and supply the fuel for its activation weren't signed during that visit as they were expected to be, even though they'd already been drawn up previously between Larijani and the head of the Russian Nuclear Energy Commission Sergei Kiriyenko in Moscow.

In addition, I'm sure the Iranians wanted to discuss Russian backing in the UN and possibly the failure of the vaunted Russian made Pantsyr missile defense system in Syria.

The Russians may very well have had a proposal for the Iranians, either in terms of solving the ongoing nuclear crisis with some kind of oversight for Iran's nuclear program on the Russian's part or a simple upping of the price demanded for the Russians to complete Bushshehr or upgrade Iran's defenses, something the Russians have successfully pulled off before.

Whatever it was, I have a feeling it didn't fly. And this little item is another clue that the relationship between Putin and the Mullahs might be changing.

Almost directly after Putin left Iran, Putin and President Bush reportedly had a long and in depth phone conversation on Monday, October 22nd.

The very next day, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a joint press conference with Czech Prime Minister Topolanek in Prague, suggesting that the Bush Administration was open to the idea of a possible delay in activating the proposed US missile interceptor project in Poland and radar station in the Czech Republic - until an Iranian threat was "definitely proved."

Gates added that the US would proceed with plans to build the sites, but possibly wait before putting them in working order.

"We would consider tying together activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat — in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Gates said.

On the same day, President George Bush spoke at the National Defense University, in Washington. He said the US-led missile defense system in Europe is urgent, but mentioned the Russian offers of missile defense facilities in Azerbaijan and southern Russia, something the Bush Administration had previously not been interested in. The entire project, said the US president, is “part of a broader effort to move beyond the Cold War” that could lead to “an unprecedented level of strategic cooperation” between Russia and the United States.” He referred to Iran as “an emerging threat that affects us all."

This represents a major concession on the part of the Bush Administration to Putin, and question that comes to mind is - what did Putin offer in return?

Will Russia support toughened sanctions in the UN? Is Putin offering to look the other way if there's a military showdown between the US and Iran?

Added to the mix was Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's visit to Putin. The Syrian raid has apparently ramped up the pressure on the situation, simply because it showed that Israeli aircraft were both able and willing to penetrate state-of-the-art, Russian-supplied air defenses with impunity to get at what they perceived as an existential threat.

I smell the beginnings of a deal. We should know more fairly soon.

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