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Larijani Will Not Run for Iranian President in 2009

According to an article published this week by Iran's Fars News Agency, former nuclear negotiator and current Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Larijani has ruled out running for president in 2009.

"I will not stand in the presidential election, and I have said this many times and it is not a secret issue," Larijani told FNA on Tuesday. Larijani is the first prominent conservative to explicitly rule out standing in the election scheduled for June 12, 2009.

The news may come as somewhat of a surprise to those who follow Iranian politics closely. Larijani has been at odds with President Ahmadinejad over his handling of the nuclear file, an issue that lead to Larijani's resignation as chief negotiator, and the economy. Indeed, Larijani made it clear during his campaign for parliament that he would hold the president accountable for his policies. To some, including myself, the parliamentary campaign was likely to be a stepping stone to a presidential campaign just over a year later. As Speaker of the Majlis, Larijani has been afforded an excellent platform to establish himself nationally as the leader of the conservative opposition to Ahmadinejad.

So why the change of heart? Two possibilities:

1) Larijani is simply clearing the way for Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran and an even more vocal opponent of the President (Qalibaf was left to clean-up quite a mess in the municipality after Ahmadinejad's tenure as mayor), to run for President. Qalibaf has not discounted the idea of running and would be drawing on a number of the same groups of support that Larijani would have engaged. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Larijani, Qalibaf, and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezaie joined forces to form the Broad and Popular Coalition of Principlists as a direct challenge to Ahmadinejad's United Front of Principlists (Iran does not have political parties, simply political factions). Larijani's refusal to run could simply be a move to ensure that the opposition to Ahmadinejad does not get fractured (as it did in 2005) and thus not have a candidate in the second round of voting. 2) Larijani is responding to a request or order from Supreme Leader Ali Khameini to step aside and allow Ahmadinejad to earn a second term. The relationship between Larijani and Khameini is close and well known, with the former serving as an influential adviser to the latter. Khameini's support for Ahmadinejad has waned since 2005, particularly over the economy (Khameini has called for the privatization of Iran's economy under Article 44 of the Iranian constitution. Ahmadinejad and his supporters have been holding up the legislation that would implement this policy). However, recent statements by Khameini suggest that he may once again be supporting Ahmadinejad in the presidential race. If Khameini is truly supporting Ahmadinejad, and I remain skeptical of that fact (it could simply have been a public statement intended to calm reports of internal divisions), then it is entirely possible that he would ask Larijani not to oppose the incumbent - particularly during a time when analysts claim there are significant divides amongst the hardliners in Iran.

Perhaps the most telling sign will be how aggressive Larijani in opposing the President's policies in the Majlis. It should be a very interesting campaign.