On Monday, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty called attention to an apparent death threat against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in order to highlight the internal conflicts that have been proliferating within the regime amidst eight months of anti-government protests and rising levels of foreign pressure spearheaded by the Trump White House.
The US president’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, combined with the persistent domestic unrest within the Islamic Republic, has reinforced many hardliners’ rejections of the sort of negotiation and outreach with Western “enemies” that enabled President Hassan Rouhani to realize the nuclear deal. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had previously signed off on Rouhani’s strategy, appeared to disavow that decision last week, saying that it was a mistake to trust the US as a negotiating partner. He also downplayed the prospective impact of newly re-imposed and forthcoming US sanctions, intimating that the recent, severe problems in Iran’s economy were more attributable to government mismanagement under Rouhani’s nominal leadership.
These criticisms and reassertions of hardline authority were on display against the backdrop of a protest in the city of Qom, which is the center of theological scholarship in Iran and thus a sort of power base for the theocratic leadership. RFE/RL indicated that the protest was staged by a group of clerics who have joined Khamenei in blaming the economic situation upon Rouhani. They were reportedly accompanied by at least one official in the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who addressed the event in which participants cheered and held placards.
Among those placards was one that was widely shared on social media because of the implied threat of violence. It said that those who advocate for negotiation should expect to end up “in Farrah’s swimming pool,” a reference to the place in which the dead body of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was allegedly found last year. Apart from pointing to death as the outcome for Rouhani and his political allies, the message may have intended to imply the possibility of assassination, since some Iranians believe that Rafsanjani was killed by hardliners.
The potential significance of the threat is amplified by reports that the protest may have been organized by, and the placards provided by a highly influential political group. The RFE/RL article characterizes the Qom protest as seemingly having close connections to the “principalist” faction of mainstream Iranian politics, as well as to the principalist-aligned IRGC. It quotes the reformist cleric Ahmad Montazeri as attributing the protest to “certain groups that believe they own the country. They feel they represent Islam, they are in military bodies as well security bodies. They can do whatever they want.”
Such comments place the Qom protest in clear contrast to the largely spontaneous and grassroots protests that have been springing up in various cities and towns ever since the nationwide uprising in late December and early January. Some of the latest such demonstrations began on July 31 and continued for upwards of 10 days, thereby coinciding with the return, on August 7, of some of the economic sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal. In some of the dozen-or-so cities that participated in that movement, participants reportedly clashed with security forces, even forcing their withdrawal in some cases while chanting provocative slogans that became familiar during the December-January uprising.
Tehran has predictably attempted to downplay the seriousness and the popularity of these sorts of protests, as well as using state media to blame them on foreign infiltrators and a US plot to engineer regime change. Although Trump administration officials including the president himself have repeatedly voiced support for the Iranian people and their developing conflict with the clerical regime, they have steadfastly denied that their policy is oriented toward regime change.
This has, of course, not stopped Iran’s leadership from presenting the Islamic Republic as under threat from a foreign conspiracy rather than from spontaneous domestic unrest. And Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated the official narrative on Sunday as he marked the 65th anniversary of the British-American coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinforced the dictatorship of the Shah. Zarif said via Twitter that the US now “dreams of doing the same through pressure, misinformation & demagoguery.” To support this, he pointed to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement last week that he was forming an Iran Action Group to take charge of Iran policy, with the stated goal of compelling the Iranian government to change its behavior.
As well as overstating the purpose of the IAG, Zarif’s comments sought to contribute to the familiar practice of projecting an image of strength in the face of largely imagined threats. Any effort to undermine the clerical regime would be doomed to failure, he said, according to Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, other Iranian political and military officials continued to push the narrative of rapidly growing Iranian military strength, thereby implying that the regime is capable of confronting the US directly or closing off the Strait of Hormuz to regional oil exports, as it has threatened to do at various times in the past.
The Algemeiner reported on Monday that a leading Iranian official had repeated Tehran’s declaration that its ballistic missile program is “non-negotiable” and entirely separate from the nuclear deal that European officials are attempted to keep in force despite the American withdrawal. This comes shortly after the IRGC performed its first test-launch of a ballistic missile in over a year, thereby resuming one of the key behaviors that had been cited by critics of the nuclear deal as evidence that Tehran was not honoring its commitments. Although ballistic missiles were indeed kept separate from the nuclear deal itself, a concurrent United Nations Security Council resolution declared that Iran was expected to refrain from the development or testing of such nuclear-capable weapons.
The latest ballistic missile test was performed in the midst of Iranian naval exercises that were originally scheduled to take place months later. The accelerated drill was characterized as a test of the “swarm tactics” that the IRGC naval forces would theoretically employ to combat larger navies and close of the Strait of Hormuz. And at the same time that these tactics are being highlighted, the regular Iranian Navy is apparently striving to present itself as further closing the gap with foreign powers by increasing the pace of domestic military development.
As an example of this, Reuters reported on Monday that naval officials claimed to have installed and successfully tested a new weapons system on one Iranian warship. The Kamand system was reportedly compared to the American automated machine gun known as Phalanx, which is capable of destroying incoming missiles. The report notes that Iran has indeed developed a large domestic weapons industry in order to compensate for the fact that it is barred from importing military hardware. But Iranian authorities frequently exaggerate that industry’s accomplishments, relying on non-functional mockups or outmoded equipment with superficial modifications to give the impression that their military has not been seriously affected by economic sanctions.
Now, those sanctions are set to increase as the US re-imposes its measures and maintains pressure on the Europeans to do the same. European businesses have largely been unwilling to risk US penalties by remaining in the Iranian market, even as European authorities try to keep the nuclear deal alive. This was made evident once again on Monday when the Associated Press reported that the French energy giant Total had pulled out of Iran after cancelling a five billion dollar, 20 year agreement to aid in the development of the South Pars oil field. According to the report, Total had only spent 40 million Euros to date since returning to Iranian market following the conclusion of nuclear negotiations.
At the same time, the White House and other opponents of the Iranian regime are seemingly stepping up their efforts to convince European leaders to abandon their policy of trying to protect Iran from US-led pressure. It remains to be seen whether the belligerent Iranian response to that pressure will help the American case, but it goes without saying that it will only reinforce the positions of those countries that are already lined up against Iran.
Indeed, Iran seemingly embraced renewed tensions with its regional adversaries on Monday, when, according to UPI, it accused other member states in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries of violating the cartel’s protocol by exerting control over fellow members’ production or export quotas. The relevant remarks, expressed in a letter to OPEC and in a statement to the Iranian Oil Ministry’s official news outlet, evidently referred to an agreement that was made last year to limit oil production in order to buttress falling prices. The agreement had already been a source of worse tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Iran ultimately signed onto the agreement after fellow OPEC members agreed to allow Iran to increase its own output until it reached self-described pre-sanctions levels.
Now, Iran appears to be disavowing the agreement in much the same way Khamenei disavowed negotiations with the US after previously approving them. Iranian envoy Kazem Gharibabadi was quoted as saying, “Iran believes that OPEC should support its members firmly under the current conditions and prevent other countries that are seeking to politicize the organization.” Such statements seem to urge multilateral defiance of Western interests and can easily be regarded as veiled insults to close US allies like Saudi Arabia.
If Iran continues along these lines, it may stoke further escalation in the multifaceted conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. September 23 may provide a testing ground for this when Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh attends a conference in Algeria meant to monitor compliance with the OPEC agreement. As UPI notes, the meeting comes at a crucial time, only about six weeks before the re-imposition of the rest of the US sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal.