Challenges abound as the Islamic Republic turns 40

This February marks the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution and the birth of the Islamic Republic, but for those in power in Tehran, celebrating the victories of the past is easier than dealing with the problems of the present. Challenges abound on all sides. On the home front, the so-called moderates and hardliners will battle it out, but neither side wants a full-on political crisis as an anxious Iranian public watches U.S. sanctions further ravage the economy. On the foreign policy front, Tehran will engage in a game of cat and mouse with the United States, but the overall Iranian strategy will be the same as in 2018: to avoid giving President Donald Trump a pretext to pursue regime change more forcibly while hoping he will not be re-elected in 2020. Meanwhile, those expecting the Iranian regime to introduce any game-changing policies will likely be sorely disappointed.

What reform?

In 2019, the elected president, Hasan Rouhani, will remain in an awkward tango with the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is unlikely to seek an open confrontation with Khamenei, whose more reactionary views stifle any chance for meaningful reform in Iran, but the president will need to look for ways to remain politically relevant. Rouhani’s line of attack against Khamenei has to be supremely vigilant, but he has recently signaled a willingness to push the envelope.

In early January, on the second anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading Iranian political figure, the Rouhani government put on a big show to celebrate the man many today like to portray as a “moderate.” Rouhani took the lead and praised him in ways few have praised Rafsanjani in public since his death. Some of Rouhani’s comments were nothing short of direct attacks against Khamenei. Rouhani said Rafsanjani was the reason Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989. He said that Rafsanjani was the reason why Iran could stand up to Iraq militarily and not be defeated by Saddam Hussein. But most importantly, according to Rouhani, Iranians had a revolution in 1979 so “no son will follow his father in power,” a jab at Khamenei and his purported plans for his son Mojtaba to succeed him. Rouhani also took a swipe at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when he said that Rafsanjani had started both Iran’s nuclear and missile programs in the 1980s.

The speech was pure opportunism as Rouhani continues to consider his political future. He had not even bothered to attend the previous year’s celebration for Rafsanjani, so why did he decide to come this time? Leading Iranian reformists perceived the speech as an attempt to distance himself from the reformist camp that supported him in 2013 and 2017. They seem to view the speech as an effort by Rouhani to say he is a “pragmatic” figure like Rafsanjani and not a political reformist.

The speech was an appeal to the many supporters of Rafsanjani now that Rouhani is openly signaling he wants to be a contender to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader. Meanwhile, hardliners are attacking Rouhani for giving Rafsanjani credit for managing the Iran-Iraq War and launching Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. But they do not seem to want to publicly admit that Rouhani has openly signaled his interest in the position of supreme leader. There is no doubt that this was a speech against Khamenei’s plans and a sign that Rouhani does not want his political career to come to an end when his presidency does, in 2021.

Rouhani’s fight against the IRGC might therefore enter a new, and nastier, phase this year. As Iran and Europe are seemingly moving closer to a compromise, the fight inside the Iranian regime over power-sharing is once again intensifying. In the most recent example, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC’s aerospace forces, launched an open attack against the Rouhani government’s performance and priorities. As has been the case with earlier attacks by the IRGC, Hajizadeh accused the Rouhani government of being “fixated” with the West and said it lacks the “management skills” to “overcome the pressures from the outside.”

This line of attack is not new. What is noteworthy is the timing. Two things stand out. First, this comes at a time when Iran and Europe are believed to be moving closer to some kind of deal. The IRGC obviously fears that its immediate interests – such as its control of Iran’s missile program and Shi’a militiamen in the region – will be undermined by promises the Rouhani government might make to the Europeans. Second, the latest IRGC attacks followed days after a number of senior right-wing ayatollahs issued strong criticisms of President Rouhani.

Most notably, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi rebuked Rouhani after the president said that “there is no freedom of the press in Iran” and that the issue of “mandatory veil has become a problem” for Iran. Makarem Shirazi’s statement that Rouhani should know that Iran is an “Islamic Republic” and not a “republic of secular democrats” was seen by the IRGC as an invitation to attack the Rouhani government.

The U.S. and Iranian factionalism

As this latest round of fighting makes clear, deep political differences remain within the Iranian regime. These differences show their face when the regime has to make tough decisions about its ideological future and where to go from here as it negotiates with Western powers. The question remains though, does the IRGC feel it can openly attack the Rouhani government only after the senior clergy has criticized it? If so, then the IRGC clearly does not want to engage in a direct fight against the elected president, but prefers to do so only from behind the scenes or under the wings of right-wing clerics.

No doubt the anxious Iranian public would rather have the ruling Islamists, whether moderates or hardliners, pay more attention to the issue of declining living standards. According to the latest figures from the Iranian parliament, at best the economy will contract by 4.5% over the next year, running from March 2019 to March 2020. The oil sector is set to be hit the hardest by the impact of sanctions. Instead of dealing with the root causes of Iran’s economic pains – which are due to U.S. sanctions and hence a foreign policy test – the hardliners will likely frustrate any efforts by Rouhani to pursue détente with the West. As Khamenei himself has put it, the West, and particularly the United States, cannot be trusted, and he has pointed to President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal as proof.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Jan. 9, when he called American officials “idiots,” was not coincidental or the result of anger. There is a fight inside the Iranian regime about whether or not to talk to the Americans. President Rouhani’s government and the media that supports it have launched a campaign to promote talks with the U.S. – or at least that is what Khamenei suspects is happening.

People close to Khamenei are not necessarily against talking to Trump, but they want to be the ones who do the talking. Khamenei set this course in late 2018 when he said that “even if Iran negotiates again with America, it will not be with Trump.” But many in the Rouhani government find this stance to be unrealistic and unsustainable. These people, who Khamenei calls “America fixated” in his speeches, are warning that by summer 2019 the ongoing socio-economic protests in Iran could get out of control and that Tehran should talk to Trump before it is too late.

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