The following is written by NCF Secretary General William Morris and is based on a discussion with Dr Mehrdad Khonsari and friends at the ‘Iranian Centre for Policy Studies’.
Today’s Iran has four distinct political groupings: The pragmatists, the reformists, the traditionalists and the radicals. The traditionalists and the radicals are sometimes grouped together and called ‘principalists’. Thus:
- Pragmatists: include President Hassan Rouhani and ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
- Reformists: include ex-President Mohammad Khatami and are generally loyal to the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hussein Khomeini
- Traditionalists: include the speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani
- Radicals: include former President Ahmadinejad.
It is important to note that it was the pragmatists and the reformists that brought Rouhani to power. He was not supported by the ‘principalists’, i.e. the traditionalists and the radicals. Interestingly, however, Rouhani is trying to distance himself from the reformists; a stance that he undoubtedly thinks will strengthen his hand given the fact that America is becoming more hard-line. His worry for the future must be that in the 2021 Presidential Elections, to choose his successor, the Iranian establishment will decide to face a hardliner in Trump with a hardliner and back Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani has become something of a superstar in Iran and has political ambitions. Taking the long view, if Trump wins a second term in 2020, which seems a strong possibility, then Soleimani may become the next President of Iran. These developments in Iranian politics disturb many of Iran’s moderates who are attempting to do all they can to keep all those who are pro-modernisation, i.e. the pragmatists and the reformists, as one political bloc.
On the Saudi Arabian question opinions are divided in Iran. Clearly the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East is of concern to many. The radicals, and some of the traditional conservatives, think that Iran must take actions that change the attitude of the Saudis by standing up to them more provocatively. President Rouhani, on the other hand, thinks that the way forward is to use diplomatic channels. However, some in the reformist bloc think that the diplomatic avenue has failed and would like to introduce some new tougher measures against Saudi Arabia, whilst keeping the diplomatic channel open.
Some of the radicals and a good many of the traditionalists think Iran’s situation in Syria is outstanding. The reformists, on the other hand, think the situation is bad. They think the Syrian adventure puts Iran at the mercy of the Russians, on whom they become increasingly dependent, particularly at the United Nations where they need the Russian veto. They feel they need an exit strategy.
On the apparent use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Iran finds itself in a difficult position. Many Iranians lost relatives to chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed at least 100,000 people were killed in chemical warfare with Iraq, many of them very young. If the Iranian population believed for one moment that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, then the pressure on the Iranian establishment to stop supporting Assad in Syria would be immense. For this reason, Iran’s media does not even give a moment’s space to the idea that Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons. Any reference to the possibility is treated as mere propaganda.
The Nuclear Deal
The Iranian nuclear deal with the West, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is approved of and supported by the pragmatists, the reformists and the traditionalists but not by the radicals, who oppose it wholeheartedly. If President Trump decides to not sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th it will strengthen the hand of the radicals.
Most Iranian intellectuals think the reason the nuclear deal with the United States and the West happened in the first place was because the US had become convinced sanctions were not going to work. As regards a way forward on this sensitive issue, the infighting between the different political factions in Iran has made this more difficult. There was a reformist suggestion that Iran should make a unilateral offer that for three years it would not increase the range of its missiles nor sell missiles to any third party. Their intention was that, though this was to be a unilateral measure, it would be handled in such a way that it was a precursor to a deal of some kind. The reformists were disappointed when the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced this policy in an off-hand manner without beating any drum, failing to give it its proper importance.
The Supreme Leader’s position is that Iran should adopt a policy of what he calls ‘heroic flexibility’. However, this is not likely to help much if, as expected, President Trump decides not to sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th. The reason it won’t help is because Europe has lost its nerve and will string along with the American position. This means that Europe is no longer a key player as far as Iran is concerned. Iran feels it must either resolve the situation with the USA by reaching some sort of accommodation or prepare itself for more sanctions. Indeed, some of those with a negative outlook in Iran feel they must prepare themselves for a possible war with the United States three or four years down the line.
The consequence is an attitude from Iran whereby they feel that, in the aftermath of Trump’s presumed failure to sign the waiver on the 12th of May, they will give things a month’s grace to see if there is any possibility of signing. One month later, they will restart the six cascades in their Fordow facility. The centrifuge cascade is the machine used to enrich uranium. As part of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to run two of the cascades “without uranium” (i.e. for the production of isotopes for medical use) whilst four would remain idle, thus weakening Iran’s nuclear program. The restarting of these cascades would restart the push for Iranian self-sufficiency in regard to the production of nuclear fuel once again.
From this new position, Iran would wait another month and then release a statement along the lines of ‘we will stop if you honour and observe your side of the agreement’. If things continue to go nowhere, Iran will go flat out to produce all of their own nuclear fuel. There are those amongst the Iranian establishment who are even threatening to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But that seems unlikely given Iran’s Supreme Leader’s abhorrence of weapons of mass destruction, as declared in his famous fatwa on the matter.
Attitudes to America
The chants of ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel’ at Friday prayers continue in some of the big mosques. The reformists have been pushing for an end to this practice, which they regard as dishonourable. However, presumably because the reformists take this stance, the radicals continue to back this practice of chanting words of hate, just to irritate the reformists. There is a school of thought that suggests that if the ‘principalist’ wing of traditionalists and radicals actually did return to power they might stop the chanting taking place.
Supreme Leader Khamenei thinks President Trump is better for Iran than President Obama was. He found Obama hard to understand. He regarded him as having an iron fist in a velvet glove. Trump, however, he does understand. He thinks of Iran as having had its own Trump in President Ahmadinejad and he regards men of this kind as straightforward and easy to deal with. Interestingly, the Supreme Leader does not consider Saudi Arabia as an enemy. The Supreme Leader’s enemies are the USA, Israel and Russia. His gravest concerns, internationally, in order of priority are:
- The USA
- Chaos in the region
- The New World Order
Thus, we have the paradox. Saudi Arabia thinks of Iran as its greatest enemy, whereas Iran, from the standpoint of the Supreme Leader, does not think of Saudi Arabia as an enemy.
Iran does not think there will be a war with Israel. This is because Iran believes that both Iran and Israel are careful to observe each other’s red lines. That is not to say that Israel will not attack Iranian positions in Syria, but there are limits beyond which Israel will not go. Furthermore, Iran does not think that Israel has the military strength to attack Iran at home, even with Saudi Arabian co-operation. In any case the Supreme Leader has given the command of any response, should Iran be attacked, to the Revolutionary Guard. They have made it privately clear to Israel that their immediate response would be a missile attack on Israel. Iran is, therefore, quite confident that there can be no war between Iran and Israel unless the United States of America is fully engaged.
Interestingly, Iran has often made commitments in second-track dialogue to suggest that, if it had true rapprochement with America, it would then devote its energy to supporting a Middle East peace process that engaged Israel and the Palestinians. However, given the fact that the US-Iran relationship had softened under Obama, and Iran failed to deliver on Middle East peace at that point, it would seem this has proved a hollow promise.
If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, dies tomorrow (or ‘steps down’ to use the polite Iranian expression) then the probability is that Saeed Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will become Supreme Leader, given that he has the support of President Rouhani.
That said, the official procedure, constitutionally, is that the body known as the ‘Assembly of Experts’ chooses the successor. They are all predominantly conservative and many of them take a radical position in Iranian politics.
Another factor, of course, is the immense power of the Revolutionary Guard. They may wish to see former Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi or speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani chosen for this post. Of course there is one other dimension. Should the current Supreme Leader die slowly rather than suddenly, he may nominate his own successor (as did the first Supreme Leader). In which case, all bets are off and the next Supreme Leader could be any confidante close to the existing Supreme Leader, even someone from left-field like Ayatollah Seyed Safavi.
Civil society is in no position to bring down the government of Iran. That said, curiously, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East whose society would accept secular government should circumstances permit. This is because many Iranians would find a change refreshing after years of religious government. Not that there is any prospect of this happening, and certainly not whilst Supreme Leader Khamenei remains alive. The Revolutionary Guard is totally under Khamenei’s control as is the entire Iranian establishment. Khamenei is quite skilled and Machiavellian in his approach. He understands that he shouldn’t control everything. Instead, he controls key figures. He likes to control those that recruit or promote senior people. Thus, for example, he considers it important to have the loyalty of the ‘Assembly of Experts’. This approach leaves him totally in charge. Furthermore, Khamenei feels supremely confident. He regards himself as having defeated Daesh in Syria and Iraq and as being in a good situation in Afghanistan. He does not consider that he has problems.
The government of Iran may have doubts about the future, but the actual leadership, in the shape of the Revolutionary Guard establishment and the Supreme Leader, feels confident. Perhaps brashly, it considers itself able to face any challenge the world throws its way and retains its simplistic ‘if you love me I will love you and if you hate me I will hate you’ approach to international affairs. Given the levels of hubris and testosterone being manifest at a superficial level, in both in great world leaders like Trump and Putin as well as great regional leaders like Mohammed bin Salman and Bashar al Assad, this does not bode well for the future. What is encouraging is that those that are pro-modernisation, including Rouhani, remain centre stage when it comes to Iran’s interface with the international world. As long as that remains the case, there is real hope for the future. It is interesting to note that levels of human rights abuse in Iran are less unsavoury than they were in Ahmadinejad’s day, though there are still appalling problems to be addressed. Iran is becoming a better place than it once was. It is to be hoped that the world does not drive it back into a corner yet again.
William Morris, Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation