"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
- Winston Churchill, October 1939
Substitute “Iran” for “Russia”, and Churchill’s words go some way towards explaining the convoluted stance that Iran is assuming on the world stage. Iranian national interest, as perceived by the Supreme Leader, is indeed the key to forecasting where the nation is heading, however enigmatic the means adopted.
The comparison with the old Soviet Union is, though, far from exact. Supreme Leader he may be, but Ayatollah Khamanei is no Josef Stalin. His political position, though strong, is considerably less assured than the unassailable status enjoyed by the one-time absolute dictator of the USSR. Iranian expert, Karim Sadjadpour, points out that Khamenei’s legitimacy was among the many casualties of the tainted 2009 presidential election. Taboos were shattered when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets, chanting “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.” Among Iran’s pious classes, images of government-sanctioned brutality against civilians further undermined his image. Afterwards, once-respectful subordinates such as Khatami and Mousavi, to say nothing of Rafsanjani who had rarely been respectful, openly defied him.
As for the recently-elected, so-called “moderate” president, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, he is hemmed in by internal political constraints that severely restrict his freedom of manoeuvre. Iran’s new stance on the world stage – honeyed words as part of a charm offensive – are a considered change of tactics, designed to provide it with yet more time to achieve its aim of nuclear weapon capability. But the Supreme Leader’s acquiescence in the election of the non-abrasive Rouhani was also partly a response to the demands of the Iranian people, articulated so clearly during the mass protests in 2009.
Given the opportunity to express their views, they demand democracy, human rights, an improved economy, and an end to their country’s international isolation. It is far from clear that Rouhani has the ability, or even the desire, to respond very far. He is constrained by the Islamic Republic’s constitution, which places real power in the hands of the unelected Supreme Leader and byzantine institutions. Iran’s constitution also significantly limits human rights protections, entrenching inferior status for women and religious minorities, and limiting rights of speech and assembly.
In any case, the President comes well down in the pecking order of Iran’s establishment. Quite outside his control, and reporting direct to the Supreme Leader, are a range of seven organizations which represent the real instruments of state power: the Assembly of Experts controlling the electoral process, the judiciary, the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Friday Prayer Leaders, the Joint Headquarters which controls both the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional army, and – a vital component – the Bonyads.
Little understood in the West, the Bonyads are para-governmental organisations which account for some 30 per cent of Iran’s GDP. Complex and deceptive, even to those operating within the International Monetary Fund, Bonyads are one reason why Iran has been able to withstand US and international sanctions for so long. Comprising well over 120 corrupt semi-state monetary foundations, Bonyads are tax-exempt charitable entities through which the Iranian oligarchy has accumulated access to vast wealth and power.
To decipher Iran’s system of governance, one must hark back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which ousted the Shah and established the Ayatollah as Supreme Leader of the Iranian people. An early step by Khomeini was to form the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), created, according to Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst, as a "counterweight to the regular military, and to protect the revolution against a possible coup." It is a body imbued with extremist Shi’ite principles.
In recent years the IRCG has mushroomed into a formidable power within the Iranian body politic, and its reach extends well beyond its original military remit. “The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”, to give it its full title, under its Chief Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari, regards itself as the ultimate protector of the principles of Shia Islam. With a huge military force at its disposal, the IRCG has come to preside over a power structure that influences almost every aspect of Iranian life.
In the economic sphere it wields control over strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises; in the political, it is in a position to administer a sharp rap over the knuckles to the President, if its leaders believe he is stepping outside the area of acceptable behavior – that is, conduct in strict conformity with the Shia Islamic principles that they are in existence to protect. In 1999 the IRGC sent a threatening letter to President Khatami, who had instituted far-reaching reforms, warning him against continuing a policy that threatened the Islamic nature of the régime. Now the “moderate” Rouhani – despite the Supreme Leader’s nod of approval for his tactical U-turn – has also fallen foul of the Guardians.
October 4, 2013 witnessed an historic moment in US-Iranian relations. The President of the United States and the President of Iran were in direct communication for the first time in over thirty years. Although a face-to-face meeting had been evaded, by one side or the other, Obama and Rouhani spoke by telephone for a quarter of an hour. The event was not to the liking of the IRCG’s Chief Commander, who administered a severe public rebuke to his president.
"Just as he refused to meet Obama,” said Ali Jafari, in an interview with the Tasnimnews.com website, “he should also have refused to speak with him on the telephone, and should have waited for concrete action by the United States."
Nor is this the only sign of Iran’s internal strains and stresses coming to the surface. On September 16, Rouhani called on the Guards to "stand above political tendencies." The next day the Supreme Leader said it was "unnecessary" for the Guards to get involved in politics.
According to Iranian journalist, Omid Memarian, Ayatollah Khamenei has shaped the most homogenous ruling group in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet a side-effect of this is that shortcomings in the country's policies can no longer be blamed on reformists. In this sense, Iran's Supreme Leader is in a more vulnerable position than would appear.
The leaders of the IRCG viewed the Supreme Leader’s bold support of Rouhani for president with not a little suspicion, and it is clear that now they are chafing under Iran’s new charm offensive. The strategy may have as its objective to win as much time as possible for Iran to reach its nuclear objectives, but flirting with the West does not accord with strict Islamist methodology.
As a result, echoes reach the outside world of a power struggle about the direction Iran is taking, between Khamenei and Rouhani on the one hand, and the IRCG – the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution – on the other. Can the Iranian constitution withstand the strain?
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 October 2013:http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Irans-internal-tensions-327981?prmusr=g51t3v+zDkhkzFxv59m7bhEAUs2G6TTyfXaY7oj1eQWTrjHTabPfHBEYIUVQNh5D
Published in Eurasia Review, 7 October 2013: