How Power Shifts in Syria Will Change Iranian Politics

8 MINS READAug 27, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
How Syria Will Change Iranian Politics
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking under portraits of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 2

Syria is a critical component of Iran's regional influence. Having a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus allowed Tehran to develop a continuous arc of allies from Baghdad to Lebanon. As international pressure continues to build on Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Tehran must recalculate its regional ambitions and domestic political landscape to prepare for the possible loss of its Syrian ally.

As Iran's interests are challenged on its western flank, international sanctions have triggered growing economic and financial pressure on Tehran. The country's political elite face regional sectarian opposition and domestic economic malaise ahead of upcoming presidential elections in 2013, in addition to the growing competition for authority between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran's powerful clerics. As Iranian capabilities face an uncertain future in the Levant, the nation's clerics meanwhile will have to work to relieve pressure at home and retain control over the political establishment.

Home to nearly 75 million people, Iran has the largest population in the Persian Gulf region. Despite their numerical advantage, Iranians are considered somewhat of a minority in the region due to their ethnicity — they are Shiite Indo-Aryans rather than Sunni Arabs. This minority status partly explains Iran's efforts to bring the region's Shiite populations under its aegis. For example, after the fall of Iraq's Baathist regime in 2003, Iran brought southern Iraq's majority Shiite region, including Baghdad, under its influence. With Saddam Hussein gone, Iran was able to expand its influence westward in an uninterrupted arc to the Mediterranean Sea. The Alawite regime in Damascus linked Tehran's Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, to Iranian assets in southern Iraq.

The fall of the al Assad regime will disrupt Iran's links to its allies in the Levant — specifically to its key militant proxy, Hezbollah — adding to the pressing political issues it already faces domestically. U.S.- and EU-led sanctions against Iran have curbed crude oil exports and have restricted Iran's access to international banks, resulting in economic hardship that has put significant pressure on the government. The Iranian currency has devalued by roughly 50 percent since the beginning of 2012, and oil revenues have declined steadily. As a result, Tehran has struggled to maintain its popular programs. Rising food costs, along with difficulties accessing U.S. dollars and finding banks to facilitate financial transactions, have caused the Iranian public to become frustrated with the government's management of the economy.

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Iran is not yet facing serious shortages in food, medicine or fuel, and domestic unrest will not lead to regime change as it did across North Africa during the Arab Spring or as it currently is in Syria. Iran has demonstrated its ability to manage civil unrest in the past, as it did during the 2009 presidential elections.

Rebalancing Institutions

Given the strategic value of Iran's relationship with the Alawite regime in Syria, the fall of al Assad likely would compel Tehran's clerics to rebalance political and security institutions in response to mounting opposition from regional Sunni stakeholders. Some of these changes, particularly those to be made ahead of the 2013 presidential elections, are already under way, including plans restrict the president's ability to challenge the supreme leader. The looming regime change in Syria has merely expedited these changes. But other institutional changes, such as a revaluation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' role in Iranian affairs, would be the direct result of losing the pro-Iranian government in Damascus.

Any appreciable changes in personnel or policymaking following a Syrian regime collapse would involve the three most prominent elements of the Iranian political system. These elements include the ruling clerical elite, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; the conservative nationalists, personified by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its composite entities, most notably Quds Force chief Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

The Clerical Elite

The ongoing competition for authority between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has created rifts that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elite have been able to exploit. Indeed, the group has capitalized on the supreme leader's need for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' cooperation — which was necessary for maintaining supremacy over the Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad administrations — and has expanded its illicit smuggling activities without oversight or interference from the central government.

However, Khamenei still has authority over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The group officially remains under the purview of the supreme leader, and as such it is funded by the clerical establishment. Khamenei has also expanded the role of the country's regular armed forces to counterbalance the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' growing political clout.

To retain their primacy, the country's clerics must preside over the civilian, military and security elements of government, and it is unlikely that any competition among the clerics will override the imperative for unity and regime survival. The clerics are also now interested in portraying themselves as overseers, rather than direct rulers.

The clerics' strategy of operating through bureaucratic institutions and relying on governmental third parties to implement and enforce legislation keeps them relatively insulated from the consequences of failed policies. Consequently, they will be the most resilient political actors as Iran rebalances its government in response to its diminished regional influence. 

The Civilian Political Class

Having failed to secure a legislative victory to keep his conservative ideology alive until the next administration, Ahmadinejad will parade a nationalist foreign policy to try to rescue his faltering political position.

This process was to be expected. The clerical elite carefully managed and exploited Ahmadinejad's rise to counter the respective pragmatic conservative and reformist political tendencies of former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami. Political competitors have always criticized Ahmadinejad's economic and socialist policies, but many within the clerical hierarchy have been quick to blame the current economic downturn on Ahmadinejad rather than on Western sanctions. However, Ahmadinejad maintains considerable support among the rural and urban poor, and the clerics and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will have to be careful as they manage his exit and undo popular populist and nationalistic policies to stave off public unrest.

The reformist agenda, suppressed by the clerics and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2009, remains under tight control and is unlikely to resurface as a serious obstacle to the regime, even if the reformist and nationalist positions coalesce against clerical and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps corruption. Khamenei has co-opted former competitors Rafsanjani and Khatami, who — like the supreme leader — want to maintain the primacy of the clerics.

Clerical leadership can be expected to use the fall of al Assad to prevent the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elite from filling the void left by the nationalists' departure. Both sides tried to install their preferred candidates as speaker of the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, in May. Despite considerable support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' preferred candidate, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Khamenei was able to keep Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani in power, thereby demonstrating his power in the political system.

Khamenei's power notwithstanding, former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders hold important positions, including posts as oil minister and mayor of Tehran, and they will try to maintain these positions as the clerics seek to curtail their power.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and associated Basij paramilitary forces have defended the country several times since its inception. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), they supported and legitimized Khamenei's position as supreme leader, and more recently, they suppressed the 2009 reformist protests against Ahmadinejad's second electoral victory. Tehran also uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' asymmetric naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as a deterrent against foreign attacks on its nuclear and security facilities. 

Since 2009, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has managed Iran's complex smuggling, militia and proxy networks to expand Tehran's westward arc of influence. The group has parlayed Iran's dependence on it into lucrative business contracts, increased political integration, and relative latitude in conducting international smuggling and illicit trade activities, which generate a substantial amount of revenue and are conducted with the tacit approval of the government.

Despite its influence, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is still dependent on the clerical establishment, especially with regard to its competition with the larger conventional military branches. The 550,000 active members of the Iranian military dwarf the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which maintains an active personnel force of about 125,000. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' presence at Iranian borders could be replaced by or integrated with rival National Police and conventional military forces to curb the corruption and smuggling activities of the group — a move that would significantly curtail its ability to operate independently of the government.

A Paradox for the Clerical Elite

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps presents a difficult paradox to the ruling clerical elite. The group's loyalty and training makes it invaluable, and Tehran simply cannot afford to restrain it too severely in an increasingly hostile regional environment. But the ayatollahs also cannot afford the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps too great a political presence after the departure of Ahmadinejad's populist conservatives. With the potential loss of its Syrian ally, the Iranian regime's focus will turn inward and it will blame the outgoing Ahmadinejad administration and its policies for any economic and political blowback that would result from a collapse of the Syrian regime.

It is an imperative for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that it do everything in its power to keep Syria from reorienting toward regional Sunni stakeholders. We can expect to see covert and militant activity increase in Syria as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' focus shifts from supporting the Alawite regime to preventing Sunni Arabs from developing too strong a position between Shiite strongholds in southern Lebanon and Iraq. Even then, the group will find it difficult to justify its special status and vast domestic powers to the various political constituencies within Iran as the clerics seek to counter the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' future rise.

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