External and internal threats split Tehran regime
There was a time when internal and external threats used to join the ruling elites of Iran in a unified front against the source of the threats. That no longer appears to be the case.
Facing the dual threat of an American economic war and public protests, the ruling elites in Tehran are at each other’s throats. This is hardly surprising considering all that’s at stake: the survival of President Hassan Rohani’s technocratic government in the short term and succession after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the longer term.
The latest protests in Iran shows the same pattern as those last December and January. Desperate people are seeing their life savings vanish as the Iranian currency depreciates. As soon as they get together on the streets, the slogans about economic woes turn into anti-regime chants. These include “death to the dictator,” “death to Khamenei” and “cleric get lost” as well as chants against Iran’s military intervention in Syria or support to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The regime’s reaction resembles that of six months ago. Both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Rohani try to evade responsibility and blame each other for the economic hardship faced by ordinary Iranians.
Just as in December 2017, the IRGC has abstained from suppressing the protests. It is Iran’s law enforcement forces that have tried to contain the unrest. In an echo of what happened after the last round of protests, IRGC mouthpieces such as Javan, Mashreq News and Tasnim News expressed “sympathy” and “understanding” for the protesters. These news sources also described the protesters as “desperate victims of the economic policies of the government.”
Brigadier-General Yaqoub-Ali Nazari, IRGC regional chief commander in Razavi Khorasan province, made a more definitive expression of solidarity with the protesters. He joined the protest rally at the Shohada [Martyrs] Square in Mashhad on August 2 to “talk to the citizens about economic problems.” Nazari’s presence was especially significant because local authorities, who report to Rohani, had not issued the requisite licence to the protesters. The demonstration was technically illegal but a senior IRGC commander still turned up.
Hojjat al-Eslam Abdollah Haji-Sadeqizadeh, the supreme leader’s representative to the IRGC, wrote an interesting open letter on August 6. He complained of “bad management by certain [government] authorities.” He declared the IRGC’s readiness and that of the Basij militia to “solve current economic problems” and counter “conspiracies of foreign enemies and domestic ill-wishers.”
Rohani and his camp did not remain idle as all of this was going on. On August 6, the day that Haji-Sadeqizadeh released his letter, Rohani offered his first reaction to the protests. In a lengthy live interview on Iranian television, he provided a detailed and fairly technical description of his government’s attempts to defend the Iranian currency.
He said gold and foreign currency from the Central Bank’s reserves had been pumped into the market. Without directly mentioning the IRGC, Rohani complained about “those who took advantage of this policy” and used connections in the Central Bank to purchase as much gold and foreign currency as possible.
The implications were clear. “Those who took advantage” of his government’s policy contributed to the further collapse of the rial.
Rohani also explained that the new policy was to allow the market to regulate itself, without Central Bank or government intervention. The exceptions to this policy are basic food, fuel, detergent and other products. These will be subsidised by the government.
But Rohani’s explanations were not enough for the IRGC and its allies in parliament. On August 8, a parliamentary vote of no confidence for Ali Rabiee ended his tenure at the ministry of labour and social affairs. Rabiee had warned that 1 million Iranians may lose their jobs because of sanctions imposed by the United States. It was a realistic assessment but one that was clearly not to the liking of the IRGC and its allies.
But Rabiee was not the real target. Not only does the IRGC hold Rohani responsible for the country’s economic and social problems, they also accuse him of being too soft on the United States. Rohani and his technocratic elites are the only obstacle that stands between the IRGC and the ultimate prize in Iranian politics: controlling the succession after Ayatollah Khamenei.
That said, if disunity among the ruling elites continues and if anti-regime protests grow in number and intensity there is no guarantee the regime survives the death of Khamenei.