Khamenei vs Rouhani?

An important article in Foreign Affairs notes how Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, is preventing reform in Iran.

It opens, “the three centers of power in Iran—the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)—are embroiled in a historic contest to shape the course of Iranian foreign policy. This clash, long seen as inevitable, was finally sparked by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 negotiating partners in July. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fears that the deal was just the first step in the Rouhani’s government’s grand designs for deeper economic integration with the world, which could irrevocably alter the balance of power in Tehran. In turn, Khamenei has given the IRGC’s hardline generals the green light to fight back”.

The piece goes on to argue “Ironically enough, it was Khamenei himself who set Rouhani on the course to power. Through his control of Iran’s voting process, Khamenei first sanctioned Rouhani’s candidacy and then his victory in the 2013 presidential elections. He then proceeded to back the president’s nuclear negotiating team until a deal was reached in July 2015. Khamenei badly needed some sort of agreement to escape intense international sanctions that peaked in 2012, which threatened to unravel the nation’s economic framework”.

However this image of Khamenei as all powerful is slightly overstated. The 2009 revolutions shook the regime to the core and if Rouhani did not win, and another candidate was chosen to win the election the consequences for the regime may have been terminal. Thus, Khamenei had no choice but to allow Rouhani to win.

The writer continues “Throughout the negotiations, Rouhani and his inner circle argued for a principled détente with the West. That made Khamenei distinctly uncomfortable. Iran’s Supreme Leader was never interested in an open-ended détente, and certainly not with the United States. Anti-Americanism is, after all, Khamenei’s main claim to domestic legitimacy. Better relations with Washington would thus be a net political loss for him. Still, Khamenei stayed on board with the negotiations because he too could see that the country badly needed sanctions relief, and calculated he could prevent a nuclear diplomatic settlement from turning into a pretext for détente with Washington. In turn, he delivered Rouhani the political backing the president needed to conclude negotiations. For example, on September 17, 2013, the day after Rouhani urged IRGC generals to be open to compromises both at home and abroad on issues ranging from not playing an excessive role in Iran’s economy to acquiescing to more regional cooperation, Khamenei echoed the president’s words in front of those same generals”.

He adds “In August 2013, shortly after the Rouhani government was installed, Khamenei had agreed to let the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which reports to the president, conduct the nuclear negotiations, instead of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Even so, Khamenei also made it clear that the IRGC generals would still run foreign policy as it related to militarised conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. For this task, Khamenei gave the nod to General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its foreign operations branch. As late as October 2015, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif openly admitted that, even as the foreign ministry handled nuclear negotiations, Iran’s Syria policy was “not in the hands of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.” This division of labour worked out well: Iran’s diplomats possessed the credentials and ethos that resonated with the West. They stood in stark contrast to former Iranian President’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provincialism. Iran’s hardliners in the IRGC, meanwhile, were acting with near impunity in the region’s conflict zones”.

The author notes that Khamenei hoped to block Rouhani’s agenda of greater dialogue with the US. Yet the author correctly notes that “Khamenei’s displeasure toward potential rapprochement with the United States reveals his own insecurity. According to the Supreme Leader, Washington both intends to and is capable of bringing down the Islamic Republic, with nuclear negotiations serving as the Trojan horse. In this conception of U.S. grand strategy, Rouhani is at best cast as a naive enabler and, at worst, a willing agent of the Washington, as some of Rouhani’s most hardened critics, such as IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Ahmad Khatami, two hardliners close to Khamenei that have openly argued with him at times”.

Interestingly the piece adds “in clamping down on Rouhani, Khamenei may have jumped the gun. If anything, he may have forced the president to up the ante as well. The half sentence admonishing U.S.–Iranian trade in Khamenei’s letter to Rouhani has taken on a life of its own; since its publication, IRGC generals and their resources—media outlets, their minions in the Iranian parliament, and other lackeys in the state machinery—have all ripped into Rouhani’s government. Everything it stands for is now a fair target. Khamenei has provided the IRGC with a blank check to “identify threats to the political order” and address them as it sees fit. This measure is bound to receive pushback from Rouhani’s faction. Not only does the Iranian president believe he has an electoral mandate to pursue domestic and foreign policy reform, he also sees a profound appetite among Iran’s population for a transition to a much milder version of the Islamic Republic. By publicly mandating unelected IRGC generals to act as a check on a popularly elected president, Khamenei has crudely pitted two centers of Iranian power against one another. But in doing so, the 76-year old Khamenei has merely raised the stakes in an intra-regime power struggle—one that might cause the Supreme Leader to lose control within Tehran’s political decision-making process”.

However matters are complicated further by Khamenei’s failing health. He is said to have cancer and the next supreme leader will be crucial in Rouhani’s reforms are to continue. Equally, if a hardliner is elected to the top job Rouhani may have to appeal directly to the people which may begin a civil war.

The piece ends “The Iranian people had hoped that the nuclear deal would be the beginning of broader Iranian reforms at home and improved relations abroad. Unless Khamenei opts to stop the IRGC’s onslaught on Rouhani, the president’s camp will have to decide whether it can push back against Khamenei. If Rouhani does choose to react, Iranian politics will enter uncharted waters in the years to come”.

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One Response to “Khamenei vs Rouhani?”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] for the vote, the power struggle between the hardliners and the moderates and reformists is intensifying. This showdown, even more than the discussions about the Iran deal, will shape Iranian politics in […]

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