Rohani deal with IRGC could torpedo nuclear agreement

October 02, 2015
Smooth talk. Iranian President Hassan Rohani shaking hands with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, in Tehran, on September 15th.

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.