Rohani deal with IRGC could torpedo nuclear agreement
Washington - Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s diplomacy and the landmark nuclear bargain may have reduced the gaps between Tehran and the global powers, but the agreement is widening differences between the political elites in the Islamic Republic, a development that could imperil the deal.
While Rohani and his government of technocrats, with public support, are trying to use the nuclear deal to reintegrate Iran into the global economy, the officer corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been systematically striving to undermine the agreement.
As always, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who needs the technocrats as well as the IRGC to ensure the survival of his clerical regime, oscillates between the two power centres, extending support to both.
In the face of growing opposition from the IRGC, and Khamenei’s vacillation, Rohani has chosen a risky tactic to secure the nuclear agreement signed in Vienna. He is trying to bribe the IRGC not to resist the deal under which Tehran agreed to curtail its contentious nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy.
But Rohani does not seem to realise that the IRGC will accept the bribe and continue resistance to the deal. This undermines Rohani’s authority and threatens Iran’s long-term commitment to the Vienna agreement. Rohani’s latest attempt to bribe the Guards was delivered during his September 15th address to the IRGC’s top leadership. He boasted of the “revolutionary deed” of “breaking the unjust sanctions regime” and emphasised the need for unity and solidarity among all institutions of the Islamic regime.
Then he said the IRGC, the paramilitary Basij organisation it controls, the regular army and the law enforcement agencies “must help the government and the people in production, development and economic growth”.
Rohani’s message to the Guards was clear: The nuclear deal removes the international sanctions regime, after which money will flow into Iran’s economy. Provided the IRGC does not oppose the deal, a substantial portion of those funds will find its way to its vast business conglomerate.
This marks a change in tactics by Rohani, who had earlier criticised the IRGC’s economic activities.
Ever since Rohani took over the presidency in 2013, he has gone out of his way to bring down the IRGC’s business empire, going as far as publicly saying: “If the same institution has access to arms, money, mass media and the like, the heads of that institution will be corrupt, even if they are as pious as the companions of the Prophet!”
Under the arcane rules of power politics in the Islamic Republic, Rohani could not have delivered his latest speech to the IRGC leadership without having first consulted them — and the Guards seem to have accepted the bribe.
This could have significant consequences for the balance of power in Iran: Increased funding for the Guards’ economic empire also means increased ability to acquire more clients — and political control — among the country’s political elites. This has the effect of further undermining Rohani, his cabinet of technocrats and his cronies in the bazaar, the wealthy merchant class that wields substantial influence. It should be remembered that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 was essentially won when the bazaar merchants turned their backs on the Peacock Throne.
Worse, the IRGC, which is not likely to endorse the nuclear deal in public, will most likely oppose the agreement at some point, even after it has been officially accepted by the government and possibly ratified by parliament. This puts the durability of the nuclear deal in deep jeopardy.
Rohani seems to be making the same mistake that his predecessor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, made during his 1989-97 term as president. After the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Rafsanjani sought to bribe the IRGC to stay out of politics by putting it in charge of all major post-war reconstruction projects. The IRGC used this opportunity to establish a far-flung business empire, which embraces major construction contracts, industrials, oil and gas and airlines.
It has utilised this economic might to dominate Iranian politics, culminating with the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former IRGC officer and Rohani’s hard-line predecessor, in 2005-13.
Rohani does not seem to have learned from Rafsanjani’s error. Eager to see the success of the nuclear agreement, Rohani has readily surrendered the potential economic benefits from the nuclear agreement to the very institution that is the greatest opponent of the deal and his government.
As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and Rohani and his cabinet may soon pay the price for this mistake.