The diplomatic crisis, which Iran News Update discussed in greater detail on Wednesday, can be seen from at least two very different perspectives. On one hand, critics of the Iranian regime may been eager to recognize it as an instance of Tehran trying to exploit present circumstances in order to undermine regional allies and further extend its already considerable influence over the broader Middle East. On the other hand, persons with a more forgiving attitude toward Iran’s internal politics may see Rouhani’s outreach to Qatar as the partial implementation of his promise of greater engagement with the world, following his May 19 election to a second term as president.
In either case, the underlying circumstances themselves are indicative of the extent of current anxiety about Iranian activities among adversaries like Saudi Arabia and the United States. Although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has struck and inconsistent tone about the Saudi/UAE blockade of Qatar, he has also been broadly supportive and has pointed out that those powers have good reason to be wary of their neighbors’ outreach to the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism.
That support of international terror groups has been driven in large part by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hardline paramilitary organization that has grown steadily stronger in recent years while remaining extremely close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all matters of state. Among persons with an optimistic view about Iran’s political future, there has been some expectation that Rouhani’s reelection would initiate policies that could rein in the IRGC and thus diminish some of Iran’s most violent and destabilizing activities.
And indeed, since Rouhani secured a second term, there have been some signs of serious confrontation between him and the IRGC, especially over foreign policy. The IRGC represents the most hardline positions in this area, whereas Rouhani has proven to be notably pragmatic, as with his pursuit of the 2015 nuclear agreement or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which went into effect with the highly tentative support of the supreme leader. Since its implementation in January 2016, the IRGC has sought to cast doubt upon the value of the JCPOA while also encouraging a program of disengagement from Western powers and the refocusing of economic plans upon domestic development, much of which would benefit IRGC owned or affiliated companies.
The nuclear agreement, overall relations with the United States, and economic development projects were all identified by IranWire in a recent article tracing the conflicts between the Rouhani administration and the IRGC. What’s more, these were only three of 19 “flashpoints” that the article identified. Others include differing opinions about whether about which figures and institutions should be the focus of corruption investigations within the regime, which institution is most in charge of domestic law enforcement activities, and whether Iran should comply with international standards on money laundering, a practice that greatly benefits the IRGC and its black market economy.
Internal Power Struggle
The IranWire article argued that the ostensibly independent Iranian judiciary has in recent months effectively become an extension of the IRGC, giving it priority in law enforcement endeavors and overwhelmingly following IRGC directives regarding the conviction and punishment of political detainees. The article also makes note of the moves that the intelligence service of the IRGC has made to assert a higher authority than the Intelligence Ministry, which is technically under the control of the presidency.
Notably, these and instances of recent conflict seem to point to a power struggle within the regime, which need not suggest further disagreement over the overall direction of Iranian law enforcement and politics. This situation was further underscored in another IranWire article, this one pointing out that President Rouhani was recently quoted as saying that the IRGC’s acquisition of greater control over the Iranian economy under a privatization scheme means that much of that economy has been “delivered to a government with guns.”
The same article notes that Hesamodin Ashna, media advisor to the Iranian president followed up by saying that the administration would keep a close eye on the IRGC and strive to constrain the economic activities that armed forces are permitted to engage in. The IRGC is separate from the traditional Iranian military but retains much of its own armament, including the ballistic missiles used in a recent strike on eastern Syria, which one IRGC general said was intended as a message to the US and Saudi Arabia. The IRGC is also tasked with policing the waters of the Persian Gulf and is responsible for the vast majority of Iran’s foreign terrorist sponsorship, as well as policing activities inside the country.
The leading Iranian opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, published an article on its website on Wednesday which acknowledged the growing conflict between the Rouhani administration and the IRGC but also emphasized that Rouhani has only appeared committed to reining in the IRGC in situations where its power is a direct threat to his administration.
In fact, the NCRI emphasizes that Rouhani’s rhetoric regarding the IRGC has vacillated between criticism and clear praise. On Monday, just days after his “government with guns” comment, Rouhani was quoted as saying, “We must thank the IRGC for building strategic weapons and using them well.” The following day, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the top commander of the IRGC simultaneously responded to Rouhani’s earlier criticisms and elaborated upon his praise for the IRGC’s military capabilities, saying, “They might present us as the gun owners, but let alone the guns, we also own enemy-crushing missiles… We believe that a government without guns will be humiliated by its enemies and will have to surrender eventually.”
In calling attention to Rouhani’s inconsistent positions regarding the Revolutionary Guards, the NCRI’s article was somewhat reminiscent of recent commentary by Abdolfazi Ghadyani, a senior member of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran Organization, who described Rouhani as having “put his head down and followed Khamenei’s orders… during his first four years in office.” Although Rouhani had initially campaigned on promises of moderation and reform, including the release of political prisoners and the establishment of a somewhat more free Iranian society, he swiftly lost much of his backing after failing to take recognizable steps toward the fulfillment of any of those promises.
No Signs of Moderation
During his reelection campaign, Rouhani refashioned himself with an even more reformist image, suggesting that a stronger mandate for his second term would allow him to finally follow through on initiatives opposed by the IRGC and other hardline authorities. However, soon after his electoral victory, he began to distance himself from those claims, stating publicly that the release of Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, for instance, would depend upon the action of other institutions such as the judiciary.
Even so, some commentators, both foreign and domestic, appear to be holding out hope that Rouhani’s personal outreach to foreign powers and his direct conflict with the IRGC could preface changes in the direction of moderation. Ghadvani expressed skepticism about this, speaking in an interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran, yet he still retained enough optimism to urge the president to take action.
Groups like the NCRI, on the other hand, see no prospects for change under Rouhani, and they regard his conflicts with the IRGC as nothing more than shifting power dynamics within a regime that is generally monolithic and lacking in reformist voices. In light of that view, the NCRI openly advocates for regime change, and it insists that powerful hardline bodies like the IRGC must be weakened from outside since no Iranian officials will move against it or any other institution that is close the supreme leader.
US President Donald Trump has already shown an interest in pursuing that course of action, as has the American Congress. Soon after taking office in January, Trump directed the State Department to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. More recently, the Senate passed legislation that would, among other things, extend terror-related sanctions to the IRGC as a whole. That legislation is currently stalled in the House of Representatives, but its passage through the upper chamber of Congress was nearly unanimous.
The Iranian response to this and other moves by the US has cast doubt upon the prospect of increased Iranian engagement with the world, for two reasons. In the first place, it directly undermines the rapprochement strategy initiated by former US President Barack Obama, and thus discourages US allies from running the risk of getting caught in the middle of US-Iran tensions. Additionally, it further exposes the belligerent Iranian attitudes that have not diminished in any meaningful way since the implementation of the nuclear agreement.
For example, IranWire previously reported that on June 11, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani responded to the US’s pending sanctions bill by introducing legislation that would designate the US military as a terrorist organization. Officials have followed this with various other rhetorical gestures, some of them coming from prominent figures within the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration. On Thursday, for instance, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi as rejecting an American report that mentioned the proliferation of human trafficking in Iran, and declaring that US interventionism policies were the major source of such trends.
President Rouhani himself has joined in on anti-American rhetoric, as by publicly rejecting international concerns over the IRGC-led ballistic missile program and boasting of the other effects of the Rouhani administration’s repeated increases in military and IRGC spending.