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Iran president's rival selected as speaker of Parliament

The Baltimore Sun

TEHRAN, Iran - In a potential major political shift in Iran, a political rival to Iran's president was elected by an overwhelming majority as speaker of the Parliament yesterday. The new speaker, Ali Larijani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, is viewed by the West as a moderating influence in Tehran.

The role of parliamentary speaker is a powerful position in Iranian politics, and analysts said Larijani could use it to challenge the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against whom Larijani ran for president in 2005. Larijani won the speaker position, 231-31.

The overwhelming result appeared to be a commanding rebuke of Ahmadinejad, who has faced growing dissatisfaction in Iran about his steering of the economy. It was also a strong indication of his waning support among parts of Iran's senior leadership, and analysts said such a result in the election for speaker could not have been possible without the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

Larijani resigned as chief nuclear negotiator last October. He was among a small group of officials who, while supportive of Iran's nuclear ambitions, had tried to press back against Ahmadinejad and his more radical approach, which had left Iran increasingly isolated. After Larijani's election as Parliament speaker yesterday, he used a speech in Parliament to strongly criticize a report published this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency that had raised concerns about what it called Iran's research into the development of nuclear weapons.

He described the report as "deplorable" and said that in the future Iran might limit its cooperation with the U.N., the Associated Press reported.

Larijani, a conservative politician and the former head of state-run television, had been appointed to the nuclear post by Khamenei, to whom Larijani also answered.

His departure suggested that Khamenei had swung behind Ahmadinejad and his tougher approach on the nuclear issue, in which Iran has defied the U.N. Security Council's demand that Iran quit enriching uranium. Instead, Iran has accelerated the process of uranium enrichment.

Ahead of the vote for speaker, analysts in Iran had speculated that Larijani might use the election as a test of his popularity. If successful, he might resign from his post and run for the presidency, they said. They said he was in a stronger position than he was three years ago because of his time as the country's chief nuclear negotiator, for which he won a strong reputation inside Iran.

At the time of his resignation, there was speculation by political Web sites in Iran that Ahmadinejad and Larijani had differences over tactics and how to pursue talks with Europe.

Analysts referred to Ahmadinejad's confrontational talk and how his speeches about Iran's nuclear program had complicated Larijani's negotiations with European leaders.

In a blunt and detailed report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday that Iran's suspected research into the development of nuclear weapons remained "a matter of serious concern" and that Iran continued to owe the agency "substantial explanations."

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