When President Donald J. Trump took office on January 20, 2017, Iranians watched with particular interest. Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for May 19 this year and the already keen political competition has been heightened by what is considered to be a profound change in American foreign policy.
To understand the discourse in Tehran, it needs to be emphasized that Iran has a unique political system known as the negotiated political order entailing a series of complex arrangements among elites, whose power base is anchored either in the state or parastatal domain. The former (the president and the state bureaucracy) compete with the latter (the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, large revolutionary foundations, and the ultra-conservative Haqqani School clerics). Theoretically, the Supreme Leader is in charge of making binding decisions, but in reality, his power is far from absolute. Secretive, complex and intense maneuvering, intimidation, brinkmanship and even violence combine to generate a fluid and opaque decision making process. These dynamics often result in contradictory messages emanating from Iran.
As for Trump, each grouping of elites represents different hopes and concerns reflecting electoral calculations. The hardliners – known as Principalists because of their principled opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – are positioning themselves to be the winners. A coalition consisting of the followers of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, key elements in the Guards, the Basji and Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the leader of the ultra-conservative Haqqani School network, the Principalists have evolved a sophisticated campaign strategy.
For the most part, they aggressively denounce President Hassan Rouhani and his coalition of moderates – known as Normalizers because they wanted to normalize Iran’s international standing and rejoin the community of nations. They blame Rouhani for failing to deliver on the relief of sanctions and for being duped by the West. As Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, a Principalist on the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee argued, Rouhani was “tricked by America” in giving up the nuclear program for little profit.
On the other hand, the hardliners understand that if sanctions are removed, it would increase Rouhani’s electoral prospects. For instance, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, then-commander of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, excoriated Rouhani for the new purchase of Airbus planes, which replaced the antiquated Iranian fleet. He called this development an “electoral” ploy and a betrayal of the Resistance Economy, a plan devised by Ahmadinejad to make Iran self-sufficient and thereby immune to sanctions.
By using this win-win strategy, the hardliners can simultaneously blame Rouhani for his shortfalls and engage in what is clearly sanctions-triggering behavior. The Guards have launched missile tests which violate Resolution 2231. The naval unit of the Guards, the Neyroye Daryaee Sepah-e Iran (NEDSA), the Sepah Navy Special Force under the command of Rear Admiral Ali Fadlavi has used its fleet of speed boats to provoke American naval ships in the Straits of Hormuz. The Ministry of Security and Information, (MOIS), the Basij, and the judicial branch which the Haqqani network had penetrated, have jailed several dual American-Iranian citizens. Such conduct adds to the severe human rights abuses for which Iran has been repeatedly censured. Quite clearly, the hardliners expect more sanctions from Washington, not least to win the election. Saeed Jalili, the Principalist frontrunner, has insinuated as much in recent speeches.
Conversely, the election of Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress put Rouhani and his moderate coalition on the defensive. Rouhani’s pivot to the West and his plans to normalize Iran’s international standing comes at a time of widespread concern that the American international order is ending. The President seems to be anxious about the prospects of JCPOA under Trump; his Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif has tried to shore up support from the EU, Russia and China for the JCPOA. Lately, the Rouhani administration has asked Vladimir Putin to convince Trump not to abrogate the nuclear deal. To improve the economic situation, Rouhani joined the Terrorist Financing Convention (TFC), a move that is expected to generate much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Even so, the economy, set back by years of mismanagement and corruption partly associated with Rouhani’s ministers, is not likely to boost the incumbent’s prospects.
In this polarized political landscape, a third group, led by the long-term mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bahger Ghalibaf, has emerged. Ghalibaf has impressive security credentials, both in the Revolutionary Guards and as the head of the police force. Despite being considered a conservative, he supported Rouhani and the JCPOA. Of late, however, he has been speaking out against the Deal, and attacking its supposedly disappointing economic returns. His office installed billboards bearing anti-American slogans around the city. Ghalibaf’s prospects are quite low, but some observers note that the Revolutionary Guards may choose to support him if Jalili fails to garner enough votes. The Tehran mayor is popular with both moderates and conservatives because of his outgoing personality and his reputation of getting things done.
Quite clearly, this complex political landscape offers a challenge to the Trump administration. Although scrapping the multilateral nuclear agreement is probably not feasible, imposing unilateral sanctions plays into the hands of the Principalists, as noted above. They can use the economic shortfall to undermine Rouhani’s normalization drive and abrogate the TFC treaty which obligates banks to close accounts held by the Guards. Tightening the intrusive inspection regime, an alternative to scrapping the Deal, may provoke resistance from the Guards which oversee the nuclear program. Nuclear scientist Moshen Fakrizadeh, the top Guard commander in charge of the weaponization at the Ministry of Defense’s Field of Expansion of Deployment of Advanced Technology (FEDAT), has been known for advocating the so-called “North Korean option.” He and some committed Principalists like Ahmadinejad and Mesbah Yazdi have urged Iran to leave the NPT to complete the weaponization program. The Supreme Leader has objected to this move because of possible heavy international penalties. However, the FEDAT may attempt the so-called “sneak out contingency,” a term used to describe clandestine efforts to produce a weapon in a parallel, undeclared facility.
Ironically, a Rouhani victory may present an even more daunting challenge for the new administration in Washington. The hardliners can use the negotiated political order to shrink the real power of the presidency. In this sense, Rouhani may share the fate of the former President Mohammed Khatami, the globetrotting advocate of the “Dialogue of Civilizations,” whose functions were abrogated by the Guards, the Foundations and the Office of the Supreme Leader. In this scenario, the Principalists are expected to continue their aggressive drive to export the Islamist revolution and establish hegemony in the region. Buoyed by the victory in Syria, Qassim Soleimani, the chief of the Quds Force, recently announced the creation of the Shiite Liberation Army which would help the Guards to control hot spots in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere more effectively.
The close collaboration between the Guards and Russia in Syria had further bolstered the position of the hardliners. Sources have speculated that Vladimir Putin shared intelligence from the Edward Snowden file with the Guards, an apparent quid pro quo which, among others, involved the use of the Shahid Nojeh airbase located outside of the city of Hamdan for bombing sorties in Syria.
Over its decades-old encounter with the Islamic Republic, Washington has used an array of tools, including economic statecraft to overt cross border actions and clandestine operations, including cyber warfare. The Trump administration would have to evaluate its options within the context of the complex realities in Tehran.
Dr. Farhad Rezaei is research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where his research focuses on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared in the National Interest, Middle East Policy, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of International Affairs, Asia Times and Asian Affairs among others. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii