07/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iran: Is Larijani the New Rafsanjani?

For much of the past 10 days (in fact, for much of the past 20 years) the prevailing wisdom among Iran watchers has been that it is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who holds all the cards in Iranian politics -- and it's easy to understand why. Head of the powerful Assembly of Experts, President from 1989 to 1997, possibly the wealthiest man in Iran, largely responsible for Ali Khamenei's selection as Supreme Leader -- in short, the consummate eminence grise -- Rafsanjani is often ascribed something approaching Rasputin-like influence over all the levers of power in Iran. And since the 12 June presidential elections, speculating on his every move has become something of a parlor game.

But the reality is that Rafsanjani has probably played out his hand. By coming down firmly on the side of Mousavi, he has launched himself into an epic and decisive showdown with the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad (who attacked him repeatedly by name in the pre-election TV debates). Rafsanjani is no longer a kingmaker. He has become, behind the scenes at least, the leader of the opposition.

So where should we be looking for an early indication of which way things might go in Iran's election crisis? Two words: Watch Larijani.

One of Iran's shrewdest political operators, Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, is the country's perennial political bellwether. Uniquely and deeply loyal to the Supreme Leader, Larijani is a bedrock conservative, and a former member of the Revolutionary Guard. But he also has a PhD in Western Philosophy and has written four books on Kant, and is generally seen as someone open to better ties with the West. His open discomfort with Ahmadinejad's rambunctious style has led to frequent clashes with the President in recent years. In 2007, Larijani was removed from his post as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, in a move seen as an expression of the Supreme Leader's preference for Ahmadinejad's more confrontational approach. But parliament swiftly elected him speaker, in a near-unanimous show of opposition to Ahmadinejad. Throughout his career, Larijani -- the "quiet man" of Iranian politics -- has demonstrated a consistent knack for being in the right place, politically speaking, at the right time.

And his reactions to last Friday's elections have been classic Larijani -- deft, malleable, and sharply attuned to the shifting winds. Within hours on Saturday, he had pushed a resolution through the legislature congratulating Ahmadinejad on his resounding re-election -- providing a major boost to the Supreme Leader's efforts to out-maneuver the Mousavi camp in those crucial and confusing early hours. But then came a series of more nuanced statements that have kept everyone guessing as to his "real" allegiance -- and his ultimate intentions. Just since Sunday, he has suggested the Guardian Council might be "biased," accused the state broadcaster of being unfair to protesters in its coverage, held the Interior Ministry responsible for attacks on university dormitories, and demanded television air time for Mousavi to make his case to the public. In the same breath, though, he has lashed out at Britain and America, and criticized protesters for "creating unrest and disrupting public security."

Larijani is certainly not the only key figure to be hedging his bets during this critical time, and hoping not to end up on the wrong side of history. Most of the senior clerics in Qom -- including at least half the members of the Assembly of Experts -- have thus far remained silent and refused to signal a clear show of support for either camp. But Larijani's role is different. As parliament speaker, he doesn't have the luxury of withdrawing into a cocoon of dignified silence until the dust settles. Regardless of whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad is declared the ultimate victor, the new President will be leading a deeply fractured nation, and will be more reliant than ever on the goodwill of parliament to get his legislative agenda through. More than almost anyone else in Iran, Larijani has the ability to make the new President's life a living hell for the next couple of years.

The fault lines have been drawn at the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic, and it has never been more obvious where everybody stands -- with one notable exception. Watch his every move, his every word.