Farewell to moderation in Iran
On the face of it, the July 14th landmark agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, reached in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1, served the purpose of solving the crisis over Tehran’s contentious nuclear programme.
However, for the world powers, and in particular for US President Barack Obama, the nuclear deal served the more profound purpose of strengthening the “moderates” in Iran in the hope of transforming the Islamic Republic into a responsible regional power in the Middle East.
“It is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran,” Obama said in an interview with National Public Radio on April 7th.
Almost a year later, there is no sign of the nuclear deal strengthening the “more moderate forces” in Iran. If anything, the nuclear deal seems to have strengthened the most radical elements in Iran and has encouraged a more radical behaviour by the Islamic Republic.
In the run-up to the February 26th elections for the 290-seat parliament, and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the body that will appoint the successor of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader, the watchdog Guardian Council is systematically disqualifying candidates who are political allies of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, seen in the West as a reformer.
Iran’s reformist parties complain that only 30 out of 3,000 reformist would-be candidates put forward for the parliamentary elections were approved by the Guardian Council. Even Hojjat al-Eslam Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic and who is close to Rohani’s circle, was reportedly disqualified and will not be on the ballot.
Simultaneously, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is stepping up its deployment of forces in Syria and continues supporting its allies in war-torn Yemen.
In the coming months it will be possible to assess how much of the Islamic Republic’s frozen assets under international sanctions will find their way to support the IRGC’s most prized proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, along with supporting the reviled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria and the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Apart from this, the IRGC also orchestrated attacks against the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran on January 2nd and humiliated the United States by detaining ten US sailors on January 12th. Footage emerged showing the detainees on their knees with their hands over their heads in abject surrender, another taunt directed at the United States, still known as “the Great Satan” as Khomeini dubbed it.
Khamenei clearly approves of the weakening of the so-called moderates and strengthening of the radicals. Addressing election officials on January 20th, he defended the mass disqualification of candidates by emphasising: “I have said, and I say it again: Even those who do not support the regime should participate in elections and vote but [I’m not saying] those who do not support the regime should be elected to parliament.”
In the same address Khamenei distanced himself — albeit half-heartedly — from the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and the 2011 seizure of the British embassy building. “A bad deed,” the ayatollah said, while singing the praises of the “revolutionary youth of Iran”.
A few days later, on January 25th, Khamenei showered praise upon members of the Revolutionary Guards Navy who had detained the American sailors and delivered a veiled criticism of Rohani. The supreme leader urged the government to “show similar vigilance as the Revolutionary Guards when encountering attempts at the political infiltration of Iran”.
In summary, the nuclear deal strengthened the radicals and weakened the moderates. But how could Obama have been so badly wrong in predicting the post-July 14 developments in Iran?
And how come the Islamic Republic, which had accepted the landmark nuclear deal, continued to attack and seize diplomatic missions, which had in the past led to the international isolation?
The answer is as simple as it is profound: Obama underestimated the revolutionary nature of the regime in Tehran and overestimated the will and ability of the Iranian state to behave as a responsible regional power.
Khamenei, on the other hand, pursues the dual and sometimes conflicting objectives of securing the survival of the Iranian state, while simultaneously securing the survival of the revolution, which to the clerical regime in Tehran is the very spirit of the Islamic Republic.