The Iran Front Page report was not specific about the nature of the supposed offense against the Emir, or about the Foreign Ministry’s response. But it did clearly highlight the notion that such provocations, though apparently undertaken by organized groups of hardliners with the backing of certain officials or media outlets, are out of keeping with the foreign policy approach that the Islamic Republic is officially pursuing at the moment.
The comparatively soft approach has been underscored by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has a reputation for pragmatic engagement with foreign nations, even sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic including the United States. Some parties hoped that the 2015 nuclear agreement spearheaded by the Rouhani administration in Iran and the Obama administration in Washington would lead to a more general rapprochement between the two nations.
But hardline rhetoric has persisted on the Iranian side, and now the US’s newly inaugurated President Trump is taking clear steps to return to an assertive policy toward Iran. And amidst new sanctions and preliminary efforts to list the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the emerging US policy may be more assertive than that of any of Trump’s predecessors since the time of the Iranian Revolution.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Trump’s efforts to put pressure on Tehran coincide with Rouhani visiting Gulf Arab states in an effort to shore up regional relations. The visits may be part of an effort to focus Rouhani’s pragmatism upon traditional adversaries that are closer to home, instead of upon the US itself. But whatever his motivations, public provocations against the leaders of a place like Kuwait are directly at odds with Rouhani’s own public statements indicating that his country wants peaceful relations with the Arab nations.
Reuters reported upon Rouhani’s statements to this effect on Wednesday. And it added that the Iranian president had called for less sectarianism in regional issues. This, however, comes in the midst of widespread accusations that Iran is personally exacerbating the sectarian dimensions of regional conflicts.
Iran’s participation in the Syrian Civil War, for instance, has given an apparently permanent foothold to the Islamic Republic and its militant proxies including Hezbollah. What’s more, those forces have repeatedly broken ceasefire agreements and have made concerted efforts to relocate entire populations along sectarian lines, as part of an apparent effort to make large swaths of Syria into part of a “Shiite crescent” led by the Islamic Republic.
In light of the numerous examples of this effort, Rouhani’s call for peaceful relations in the region cannot be taken for granted. And indeed, it is contradicted by the contemporary efforts of some of his fellow Iranian officials, even those in his own cabinet. The Turkish daily Yeni Safak reported on Wednesday that Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Reza Salehi Amiri had continued to lash out rhetorically against Iran’s chief Arab rival, Saudi Arabia, over the issue of Saudi management of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Iran refused to send pilgrims to the even last year, following a stampede and crush in 2015 that reportedly killed hundreds of Iranians, and possible as many as 2,431 people altogether. But the ensuing conflict has gone beyond the discussion of security concerns and has been interpreted by some observers as an effort by the Islamic Republic to challenge Saudi Arabia’s fitness to control the main Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Amiri’s recent revisiting of the topic was described by Yeni Safak as “a new phase of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” in that it entailed Amiri threatening to continue barring Iranians from making the pilgrimage until the Saudis have paid “blood money”.
If this public relations competition with Arab rivals was the limit of Iran’s provocative activity, it would perhaps be possible to reconcile it with Rouhani’s effort to reach out to Gulf Arab states with Sunni majorities. But this week also saw the revelation of new details about the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist training activities, in a press conference at the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. In it, the NCRI noted that the IRGC has expanded its recruitment of foreign nationals and its program for training individuals both as paramilitary fighters and as terrorist operatives.
The NCRI report specifically named Kuwait – the country that Rouhani was visiting on Wednesday – as one of the regions without open warfare to which the Islamic Republic has been deploying its training camp graduates as members of terrorist cells. It is quite possible that these sorts of revelations will encourage the Gulf Arab states to resist the new Iranian charm offensive – especially avowed adversaries like Saudi Arabia, whose intelligence chief personally spoke at last summer’s international gathering of the NCRI.
In any event, Al Arabiya published an analysis peace on Wednesday describing the NCRI’s revelations as a potential source for renewed efforts by the Trump administration to confront the Islamic Republic and urge more of the international community to turn away from the previous administration’s conciliatory policies. Al Arabiya discussed those revelations not just in terms of the IRGC’s terrorist activities, but also in terms of its apparent increase in domestic power, which it has utilized to prosecute a major crackdown on domestic dissent.
This too casts doubt upon the sincerity of Rouhani’s friendly tone with the Gulf Arab states. Or failing that, it raises questions about the amount of support that Rouhani has for that effort among his fellow officials and especially among those who are more powerful than he, such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and arguably the IRGC itself.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Khamenei had spoken critically of the Iranian president, saying that he would have to do more for the country’s economy before his bid for reelection in May. But the Iran Project reported that in separate comments, Khamenei had reiterated familiar talking points blaming the United States for conspiring to slow Iran’s economic recovery subsequent to the Iran nuclear deal.
These two sets of remarks seem contradictory, and taken together they may suggest an effort on the part of the supreme leader to subject Rouhani to insincere criticism in the interest of weakening his political clout or reelection bid. Although Rouhani’s moderate credentials have been widely disputed by opponents of the Iranian regime including the NCRI, he does appear to be more pragmatic than renowned hardline entities like the IRGC. Khamenei has seemingly withdrawn former support from the president while putting his weight behind an outpouring of anti-Western rhetoric from the likes of the IRGC.
This may be indicative of a turn away from collaborative foreign relations and other nuanced policies that distinguish the Rouhani administration from other factions of the regime. It also seems to coincide with outright rejection of progressive sounding campaign promises regarding Iran’s domestic situation, although Rouhani has made no apparent effort to fulfill those promises after nearly four years in office. Reuters notes that in the same speech in which Khamenei commented on Rouhani’s role in the economy, he rejected the notion of national reconciliation, in an apparent reference to the Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011, and whom Rouhani had previously promised to have released.