This leaves Rouhani’s opponents, including affiliates of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with no apparent candidate to throw their weight behind. But this has not stopped them from seriously challenging Rouhani’s forthcoming reelection bid. Those opponents appear to be motivated in large part by concerns over the nuclear agreement that was concluded in July 2015 between the Rouhani administration and six world powers including the United States.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action resulted in large-scale relief from Iran’s economic sanctions, but also raised expectations of broader contact and reconciliation between the Islamic Republic and its traditional Western enemies. Although the Rouhani administration has not promoted such contact and has increasingly participated in the anti-American propaganda being spearheaded by the office of the supreme leader, it is generally understood that the IRGC and associated hardline groups would prefer to return to a situation of greater antagonism toward the US and less outreach to the international community.
Certainly, this has been the focus of several prominent instances of factional feuding, and also in the IRGC-led efforts to arrest and prosecute dual nationals and persons with supposed links to the US government or pro-Western views. On Tuesday, it was reported that hardline Iranian news outlets had seized upon the announcement of British think tank Chatham House’s awarding a joint prize to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry for their work on the nuclear negotiations.
Their responses to the announcement included the characterization of the prize as a mark of “shame” for Zarif, because it associates him with “the most criminal foreign minister of the current world.” Hardliners also downplayed the significance of the JCPOA to Iran’s economy, suggesting that the negotiators themselves may have benefited from the agreement but that the Iranian people did not.
In fact, because the vast majority of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product is controlled by the IRGC and the office of the supreme leader, it is those hardliners who are poised to benefit the most from sanctions relief and from newfound contacts with foreign firms that are interested in acquiring local partners for oil development and other projects. But as long as those same hardliners exert significant control over the media, they are in a good position to spread narratives claiming that their political adversaries are disproportionately benefiting from the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, those narratives are assisted by a range of financial scandals that are dogging the Rouhani administration in the run-up to its bid for reelection. Last summer, documents were revealed in the Iranian media which indicated excessive and often illegal levels of income for highly-placed government employees. Just before the emergence of that scandal, low-level employees, including teachers, had seen their earnings stagnate under the national budget set by the Rouhani administration. In the midst of persistent inflation, this meant a reduction in the real value of their income.
On Wednesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed to the emergence of another scandal and indicated that Rouhani’s political opponents were clearly keen to use it against his administration. The report noted that the Minister of Education had resigned around the same time it was discovered that approximately 2.5 million dollars had been embezzled from the Teachers’ Reserve Fund.
The NCRI wrote that the fund “was supposed to serve as the future’s hope for one million teachers… but it has turned into a place for plunderers of public wealth.” Those plunderers, in this case, appear to be linked to the Rouhani administration, and the NCRI also suggests that the resignation of the Minister of Education may serve to bury a scandal that would have otherwise given tremendous ammunition to Rouhani’s opponents and seriously impeded his chances of reelection.
Of course, given the NCRI’s blanket opposition to the Iranian regime, the organization does not appear to view Rouhani’s potential defeat as having particularly negative consequences for the country, respective to his continued rule. The Iranian Resistance has frequently pointed to signs of a lack of moderation under the Rouhani administration, in contrast to the expectations that had been voiced by certain Western policymakers including US President Barack Obama.
In line with the NCRI’s claims, Rouhani himself has contributed to anti-American rhetoric in recent months, as by joining in accusing the US of violating the spirit of the nuclear agreement. He has also defended such contentious Iranian behavior as its ongoing development and testing of ballistic missiles, thus giving the IRGC and its supporters virtually free reign to continue those activities within the domestic political landscape.
The IRGC has made numerous recent claims of advanced military development, and has often accompanied those unveilings with declarations of readiness for war with the US. On Wednesday, the USA Today reported that an IRGC-linked news outlet had released a photo of a small drone aircraft. Iranian officials reportedly said that the drone was intended primarily for maritime surveillance but could also been used to deliver explosive payloads or to crash into enemy vessels and destroy them. The reports also claimed that the craft has a flight time of four hours and a range of 600 miles, and that it can fly anywhere between 20 inches and 3,000 feet above the earth. But no photos were released of the drone in flight. In absence of independent analysis, Iran’s claims are highly dubious.
But the important feature of such Iranian media announcements isn’t their factual basis but their impact on the Iranian regime’s self-image as a bulwark against Western influence in the region. And Rouhani’s support of recent anti-Western rhetoric arguably bolsters this media narrative at a time when President Obama and other Western leaders hoped that he would contradict it.
Meanwhile, Iran’s antagonistic self-image is further underscored by the regime’s expanding influence throughout the Middle East, a trend that has been credited in large part to the nuclear negotiations and a generally permissive set of Western policies toward the Islamic Republic. Sanctions relief has provided Iran with greater resources to invest in foreign regions of political and military conflict. At the same time, Western disengagement from the Middle East has left some of those investments with fewer challenges from Iran’s traditional adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Although the Saudis have been leading an Arab coalition chiefly aimed at countering the Iranian presence in the Yemeni Civil War, this has apparently coincided with a partial withdrawal from other areas where Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for dominance. This, at least, is the implication of a Reuters report that appeared on Wednesday, regarding the forthcoming resolution to the longstanding dispute over the future leadership of the government of Lebanon.
The report describes that resolution as setting the stage for Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate to take office. Thus, it also asserts that Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, has come out on top, while Saudi Arabia has retreated from its former commitments in the country. “With Hezbollah seemingly unassailable,” Reuters explains, “Lebanon has tumbled down Saudi Arabia’s list of regional priorities as it focuses on confronting Iran in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.”
Conversely, Iran’s list of regional priorities has evidently grown to encompass Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. And despite factional feuding over the future of Iranian relations with the West, the regime’s involvement in these various parts of the region remains unchallenged by the Rouhani administration or by any other highly-placed officials. In this context, Tehran’s internal feuds, though increasingly intense, seem to be focused on very few real policy differences.