Rouhani vs IRGC?

A piece argues that the coming months will be the real test for Hassan Rouhani, “Ever since he defied Iran’s deep state in last month’s elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations. The moment came on the morning of March 8, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired several ballistic missiles in a military drill, displaying wanton disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions. The missile tests confirmed two things: First, Iran’s president, despite his proven ability to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage and win over public opinion, cannot curb the activities of the country’s most powerful military force. And second, there are organs of Iran’s revolutionary state that will do whatever they can to sabotage Rouhani’s nascent rapprochement with the West”.

The article goes on to note that “During the Feb. 26 election, Iranians opted for the optimistic message of mutual respect, outreach, and global trade offered by Rouhani and his reformist allies. They rejected the overly rehearsed, downbeat talk of American infiltration that is the mainstay of hard-line conservatives. Most crucially of all, however, the elections showed that the political war unfolding in Iran goes beyond parliament and other contested political institutions. The struggle now involves the very highest authority in the land”.

The piece mentions “The elections were not kind to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had issued dire warnings about American attempts to influence the outcome. (Among Friday prayer leaders, all of whom follow sermon instructions that come from Khamenei’s office, one ayatollah even urged worshippers to elect MPs who have “Death to America” written on their foreheads.) It’s not just that the public voted out two of Khamenei’s top counselors from the Assembly of Experts, the body nominally charged with supervising the leader’s work. They also voted for reformists, a political movement whose leaders Khamenei has accused of seditious attempts to topple the regime during street protests in 2009. After years in isolation, the group has formed a coalition with so-called moderate conservatives sympathetic to Rouhani, boosting the president’s heft. After the election, the IRGC, which reports only to Khamenei, decided to strike back. By reportedly writing “Israel Must Be Wiped Out” on two missiles used in a second day of tests on March 9, they moved to show that Iran’s regional security policies, controlled by the supreme leader, are not going to change”.

The writer argues that by conducting the missile tests the IRGC was attempting to remind Rouhani of their power, “Rouhani has yet to comment on the latest tests. When the United States first threatened sanctions in December over Iran’s ballistic missile program, he wrote to his defence minister urging him to intensify the program — a step seen as necessary to show he was not being bullied by the United States. Far from ending Rouhani’s momentum following the election, this week’s projection of force by the IRGC has only highlighted the Islamic Republic’s precarious method of balancing the interests of rival factions. Iran’s president was unequivocal on the need for compromise when speaking on March 1, after it had become clear that reformists and moderates had gained almost as many parliamentary seats as their main opponents had lost. “I hope we all learn a lesson. The era of confrontation is over. If there are some who think that the country must be in confrontation with others, they still haven’t got the message of 2013,” Rouhani said”.

Crucially he goes on to note that “Rouhani’s aim is to give Iranians greater access to the jobs and economic opportunities they say they want. His gradual approach of securing the nuclear deal and eliminating its opponents from parliament will now be followed by a push on the economy. Privatization of state industries, starting with car production, a major industry in Iran before sanctions, is likely the next item on his agenda. Broader political and economic reform will be impossible so long as Khamenei stands in the way. But Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014, is reportedly ailing — and there’s a good chance his successor will be sympathetic to Rouhani’s broader agenda. The president’s allies were victorious in the recent election for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for replacing the supreme leader in the event of his death”.

Importantly the piece adds that “the parliamentary faction most sympathetic to the IRGC’s views is weaker than ever, having lost about 90 seats compared with the previous election. Perhaps its best chance of maintaining influence will be if Ali Larijani, an independent conservative from the holy city of Qom, maintains his post as speaker of parliament. As a former commander in the IRGC who has held key posts across the Islamic Republic’s vast superstructure – he can boast of impeccable regime credentials. He won an endorsement on the eve of last month’s election from the country’s best-known military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s Quds Force, the branch dedicated to foreign operations. Larijani may face a challenge from Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami who headed the reformist list in the elections. Although it would be a prestigious appointment for Aref, Larijani showed during debates over the nuclear deal that he can build bridges across different factions. Aref, and his mostly unknown new MPs, cannot say that”.

He goes on to make the point that “Ultimately though, last month’s election showed that the establishment’s efforts to marginalize reformists have their own limitations. About 11 years after he left office, Khatami – who is banned from being quoted in newspapers or having his picture published — used social media to urge voters to back the pro-Rouhani List of Hope, showing he cannot be silenced. His YouTube video, released five days before polling day, was seen by many as the turning point that persuaded doubters to cast a ballot. Rouhani returned the favour following the election, referring to Khatami as “my dear brother” in public remarks carried live by state television, in seeming defiance of the official ban on mentioning the former president. A day later, the IRGC announced its missile tests. As the IRGC’s latest provocation shows, the president will have his work cut out in delivering the change Iranians want. One of his top rivals will be the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani — a hard-liner who years ago opposed Khatami’s reforms and issued the strongest attack on the pro-Rouhani ticket after the election results were published, accusing its leaders of colluding with foreign media to persuade the public to vote ultraconservatives off the Assembly of Experts”.

The piece ends “There is good reason, however, to think that Rouhani will be more adept at countering his rivals than Khatami ever was. Unlike the former reformist president, the incumbent has held some of the most senior security posts in the Islamic Republic. His recent election victory, on the heels of the nuclear deal, helps him prove that he is not a one-trick pony, but a canny operator whose deeper links within the elite can yield results. It won’t be easy to change how the Islamic Republic operates, but Rouhani is better positioned than any of his predecessors to give it a shot”.



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