Jan 5, 2015 | 10:30 GMT

7 mins read

Iran's Presidential Camp Goes on the Offensive

Iran's Presidential Camp Goes on the Offensive

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has managed to undermine his right-wing opponents, who primarily are led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This progress could mature into a more sustainable lead for Rouhani's pragmatic conservatives, provided the president can demonstrate that his policy of negotiating with the United States has strengthened the Islamic republic. If Rouhani fails to show progress, his present gains will dissipate, and Iran's conservatives could also resurge. 

Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, condemned those engaged in "unsubstantiated" criticism of Rouhani's economic policies, Tasnim News Agency reported Dec. 28. Shamkhani, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander during the 1980s war with Iraq who went on to head the naval forces of the Artesh, said during a meeting of economic experts that the government's strength and initiatives should not be weakened through plots and untrue allegations. He called on all state institutions to support the president's efforts and warned that insufficient attention to the country's economy could have profound security and social consequences for Iran.

Shamkhani's statement takes on a new meaning given the decline in oil prices, which threatens to weaken the Iranian economy far beyond the damage already inflicted by the U.S.-led 2012 international sanctions — measures that targeted Iran's crude export capability and severely limited Tehran's access to the international financial system. Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from hardline Iranian political, religious and security officials, these crippling sanctions were key to Rouhani's victory in the 2013 elections. The sanctions also encouraged the regime to engage in serious negotiations with other countries, including direct talks with the United States.

Iranian Political Power Structure

Iranian Political Power Structure

Iran's clerical establishment, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fully supports Rouhani's diplomatic initiative. In fact, despite his efforts to limit the scope of these talks, Khamenei has been crucial in shielding Rouhani from criticism from radical conservative quarters, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has tried to exploit fears among the ayatollahs that a detente with the United States would undermine the foundations of the Islamic republic. Though the negotiations have not yet produced the desired result of reversing sanctions against Iran while allowing Tehran to retain a meaningful nuclear program, the clerical establishment's support for the talks remains robust.

From the corps' perspective, however, an agreement on the nuclear issue would lead to a situation in which it would lose its disproportionate influence over the Iranian political establishment and economy. But the Revolutionary Guard Corps is not a monolithic entity, meaning that significant portions of the country's elite military institution recognize that there is no choice but to negotiate to avoid further damage to the economy. It is this ambiguity within the corps, and support from the ayatollahs, that has allowed Rouhani's pragmatic conservative faction and its reformist allies to go on the offensive.

Rouhani's Moves Against the Corps

On Dec. 8, the president all but directly accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of corruption and accumulation of wealth — an unprecedented move against the corps, which experienced few challengers to its rise as a political and economic player through the 1990s. However, Rouhani has done far more than engage in rhetoric against his opponents. He actually reduced the corps' budget and targeted its powerful engineering arm, Khatam-ol-Anbia, which has assets estimated to be worth around $20 billion.

On Dec. 29, the Iranian president made another jab at the corps by asserting that national strength is not just based on missile range. In a public statement, Rouhani said that having an advantage in missile strength but lagging in industry and agriculture means that Iran lacks national strength overall. The significance and timing of such remarks is clearly intentional, designed to throw the corps off balance by forcing it into a defensive posture.

Rouhani and Pragmatic Conservatives on the Offensive

Rouhani and Pragmatic Conservatives on the Offensive

In a similar move, Rouhani also slashed the budget of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service, forcing the heavily corps-influenced state network to engage in a major overhaul. Rouhani lashed out at the broadcaster on Dec. 28, saying: "Thank God, the TV and radio has been using 100 percent of its capacity to criticize the government very well. Of course we welcome criticism. It is very good. Thanks to them. But in reporting about government services I do not know, sometimes problems come up and we cannot blame anyone. No tongue moves in order to say what the government has done and what services the government has provided."

Specific Criticism of the Nuclear Program

The most overt provocation has not come from the government, however, but from Iran's civil society and intelligentsia support network. An unprecedented panel discussion on the nuclear issue at Tehran University on Dec. 17 openly criticized the state's over-emphasis on the country's nuclear program.

Renowned political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam and nuclear engineer Ahmad Shirzad — both reformist-minded academics — broke with a three-decadeslong taboo and openly questioned the economic and technological feasibility and wisdom of nuclear power for the country. Shirzad likened the nuclear program to a well from which nothing has been extracted except some money for several individuals. Further, he expressed regret that some had turned the program into an artificial honor, incurring heavy economic and financial losses for the country. Zibakalam noted that none of the 250 new industries that the state is claiming are byproducts of nuclear technology are actually the outcome of nuclear research and development.

On Dec. 22, Tehran's official news agency carried an interview with Shirzad in which the nuclear engineer called for Iranians to criticize the nuclear industry in a similar fashion to the unpopular automobile industry, which is openly lambasted. That such an event took place at all underscores the degree to which the balance of power has shifted in favor of the president. Only six months ago, Zibakalam came under the spotlight of the judiciary for a much milder assertion.

More than two weeks after the discussion at Tehran University no major reaction from any of the government's opponents has been observed. Moreover, Shirzad and Zibakalam have not been subjected to prosecution by the judiciary. This turn of events signifies one of two things: Either the head of the judiciary has been co-opted by the government faction, or the hardline conservatives who have dominated the judiciary for nearly 30 years have been weakened to the extent they can no longer control things, even in their own territory.

Either way, it is a major development, which highlights the extent of the gains made by the pragmatic conservative camp of Rouhani and his mentor, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, against the hawkish political establishment. That Rouhani and others have gotten away with such drastic action also means that Khamenei and the clerics are expecting Rouhani to deliver on his pledge to substantially weaken the existing sanctions on Iran.

Rouhani's Challenges

But if Rouhani cannot show that his policy of negotiations is effective, his opponents will likely stage a comeback. Rouhani understands that time is of the essence and he will have to show progress this year, especially with the new July 1 negotiations deadline. These time constraints could explain the Dec. 27 statement from his chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, that the talks cannot go on forever.

Whether Rouhani can demonstrate that the ongoing negotiations are beneficial depends on Tehran's bilateral dealings with Washington. Although Rouhani has been able to gain an edge on the home front, U.S. President Barack Obama faces a much more hostile Congress than before. This opposition limits the extent to which he can offer Rouhani concessions. Both leaders know the other's respective domestic limitations and are factoring them in as they bargain with one another. Washington does not want to lose out on the opportunity that has come about with Rouhani's ascendance, but there are limits to how far it can go to prevent a right-wing resurgence in Tehran.

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