Despite all the feel-good headlines about Iran and the US, Hassan Rouhani is not the one who decides Iranian policy.
Hardliners will have the final say on Iran’s relations with the US
Beyond the media’s optimistic and hopeful projection of the diplomatic outreach between Washington and Tehran, the reality inside Iran has shown a much more complicated picture, particularly since Hassan Rouhani returned to Tehran from the UN General Assembly’s session.
Mr Rouhani’s government – or any other Iranian administration that seeks to mend diplomatic, economic and political ties with the West – will pose a dilemma: on one hand, it has to show the international community, especially the US, that Tehran is serious and sincere in its recent diplomatic outreach. Iranian authorities will have to persuade the West that Iran’s insistence on continuing to spin centrifuges to a 20 per cent enrichment level of uranium are not aimed at producing nuclear weapons but at generating electricity, advancing technology and science, and for other peaceful purposes.
On the other hand, the government will have to overcome the political and ideological split in the country’s political structure. This rift has been in place since former president Mohammad Khatami’s era. It was reinforced and deepened under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. This rift is eroding Iran’s structure, once a unified ideological and political establishment ruled by the clerics.
In the past two weeks, the division across Iran’s political spectrum has manifested itself in the streets. Hardliners, ordinary people loyal to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have spoken against the diplomatic overtures.
For example, despite Barack Obama’s outreach to Mr Rouhani, and despite the current hope to mend the political, economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries, Islamic radicals, hardliners and principalists (who are extremely loyal to the supreme leader) walked on an American flag and spat on Mr Obama’s photographs in various cities across Iran. And several protesters threw eggs and hurled objects, including shoes, at Mr Rouhani as he returned to Tehran from New York.
Hardliners have urged the supreme leader to be even tougher. The supreme leader has scaled back on his calls for “heroic leniency” and “heroic flexibility” by pointing out in Farsnews that some aspects of Mr Rouhani’s efforts in New York were “not proper” and that the Islamic regime has no trust in America.
According to the hardliner Brigadier General Seyyed Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of the joint armed forces headquarters, mass rallies will be held in three weeks across Iranian cities to chant and shout “Death to America”, the “Great Satan” as well as “Death to Israel” on the anniversary of the US embassy takeover of November 4, 1979. Brig Gen Seyyed Masoud added on Saturday: “The crimes of leaders of America and international Zionism in their confrontation with the Iranian nation will never be erased from the public’s memory.”
As time passes, we are more likely to see the hardliners attempt to reassert and reaffirm their power, ideology, principles and economic interests as they did in Mr Khatami’s era. The hardliners are not limited to the supreme leader’s office, as some assume, but can be found throughout subsidiary, dependent and powerful institutions created by the supreme leader’s office.
Such institutions include the paramilitary Basij militia, the ministry of intelligence and security, the IRGC, Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution (which owns and manages approximately 350 subsidiary and affiliate companies in fields including industry, transportation, commerce, agriculture and tourism), the Supreme National Security Council, the army, the Expediency Council and others.
Also, the ideological and political landscape of the principalists – and loyalists to Islamic revolutionary ideals – have been articulated clearly by the establishment and leadership of the past 34 years since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They strongly oppose detente with the US and advocate no compromise whatsoever with the West.
These powerful and loyalist institutions are based on fundamental principles. They draw legitimacy from their constituents and employees based on these principles. As a result, they will find it imperative to keep the support of their social base and their monopoly over the economy by reasserting and reaffirming their power.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar, is president of the International American Council in Washington DC. He is on the board of the Harvard International Review and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University.