Are Ahmadinejad's Days Numbered?

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Press conference of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

Ali Larijani projected a presidential bearing as he accepted his election as speaker of Iran's parliament on Wednesday — a vote that boded ill for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Larijani, a high-profile arch-rival of the President, addressed global themes in his address to the opening session of the Majlis, dressing down the International Atomic Energy Agency and praising Hizballah. Despite the tough talk that was welcomed by some of the legislators with shouts of "God is great!" and "Death to America!" Larijani received a congratulatory call from European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana — an old negotiating partner. While Iran's insistence on its right to enrich uranium unites all major factions in the country, Larijani represents a more pragmatic approach to handling the issue, aimed at finding agreement with the West and avoiding confrontation.

Larijani's stunning return to center stage in Iranian politics makes two things clear: President Ahmadinejad's hold on power is slipping badly, and next year's Iranian presidential election race is now wide open. Winning 232 votes after persuading an Ahmadinejad ally, former Speaker Gholamali Haddad-Adel, to step aside, Larijani is poised to make the position a dynamic power center in Iranian politics, and perhaps even a personal launch pad for challenging Ahmadinejad's bid for a second term of office.

"You're going to see Larijani as a very active and confident speaker," a Tehran analyst told TIME. His comeback has underscored the increasing fragility of Ahmadinejad's authority in the country; less than a year ago, the President had effectively forced Larijani out of his senior post as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran's top nuclear negotiator.

Ahmadinejad's defeat in the Majlis is the latest sign of the ferment within Iran's ruling conservative coalition, which dominates the legislature. Larijani engineered two impressive political victories, first to win a seat in the 290-member assembly, and then to oust a sitting speaker. Prominent politicians and clerical figures have begun distancing themselves from Ahmadinejad and rallying around Larijani. The shift reflects the fact that Ahmadinejad has alienated many in his own conservative camp with an arrogant personal style and erratic economic and foreign policies. While he still enjoys solid popular support, many Iranians bitterly complain that inflation and unemployment have left the economy in a shambles despite record oil revenues. Says commentator Azar Mansuri: "The gap between rich and poor has become wider. Criticism of the government is growing by the day."

Larijani, despite his opening-day rhetoric against the IAEA, is widely viewed as the standard-bearer within the conservative establishment for pragmatism in domestic and foreign affairs. Besides serving in security posts, he is a former minister of culture and headed Iranian state television for a decade. A vital point of difference is that while Ahmadinejad has taken a provocative stance in the now-suspended negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, Larijani believes Iran's interests are better served with a constructive dialogue aimed at building Western confidence that Iran's uranium-enrichment activities will not be diverted into the construction of nuclear weapons. Interviewed on Iranian TV's Outlook One program two weeks ago, Larijani reiterated that "everyone should try to start the negotiations" to resolve the dispute over Iran's program.

Despite the groundswell of support, some Iranian insiders believe that Larijani will ultimately prefer to remain as parliament speaker rather than risk losing to Ahmadinejad in the '09 race. "He may see that he has little chance of being elected President, and that it's better to exercise influence as the head of one of the branches of government," a Tehran analyst told TIME. More an intellectual than a politician — he wrote a doctoral thesis on German philosophy — Larijani finished near the bottom in the 2005 multi-candidate election that brought Ahmadinejad to power.

Even then, his comeback proves there is deep discontent within conservative circles over Ahmadinejad's leadership, and raises the likelihood that the incumbent will be strongly challenged by another leading conservative presidential candidate. Among those contenders may be the popular mayor of Tehran, Mohammed-Baqer Qalibaf, who has criticized Ahmadinejad's belligerent foreign policy statements and mishandling of the Iranian economy. Ahmadinejad seems to recognize the shifting winds; he let it be known that he, too, preferred his bitter rival Larijani over Haddad-Adel in the speaker contest.

Because Larijani's political comback certainly had the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — who wields executive power in Iran — an analyst in Tehran told TIME it signals that Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter in Iranian politics, may be prepared to sanction challenges to Ahmadinejad's reelection next year. Whether or not Larijani becomes a presidential candidate, he is likely to use his high-profile post as parliamentary speaker to question Ahmadinejad's policies and offer alternatives. That, along with Khamenei's ambivalence about Ahmadinejad's political future, could weaken the incumbent's authority and prepare the ground for his defeat at the polls next summer.