Rouhani’s second term: On a collision course with the Revolutionary Guards
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected to a second term, winning 57 percent of the votes in the May 19, 2017, election. During the campaign, Rouhani ended up going head-to-head with the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, who was supported by the spiritual Leader of Iran, Khamenei, and is on the list of candidates to succeed him.
The fact that Rouhani was elected despite Iranians’ growing disappointment with him may reflect, when all is said and done, the choice of the lesser evil. The other option, Raisi, was responsible for mass executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s. Rouhani’s first four years in office – which most notably will be remembered for the nuclear deal with the West – did not bring about the hoped-for economic transformation. The election campaign also put Rouhani on a direct collision course with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That pertains particularly to sensitive issues such as Iran’s missile program, its nuclear program (Rouhani’s concessions during the negotiations have not been forgiven), and Iran’s regional policy. It pertains to economic issues as well, including the need to subject the IRGC’s shadow economy to transparency and taxation. Most of all, however, the collision course has to do with the issues on which Iranians most fervently long for a change – human rights, women’s rights, individual freedom, and freedom of expression. On all these, Rouhani has no good tidings to offer.
In the foreign sphere, it is indeed symbolic that on the very day Rouhani’s election victory was announced, U.S. President Donald Trump opened a new chapter in U.S. regional policy with his visit to Iran’s bitter political-religious adversary, Saudi Arabia. From there, Trump went on to Israel, a country Iran does not recognize and whose destruction it calls for. Perhaps as a sign of what is to come, a short time before Trump landed in Saudi Arabia, the Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a 675-km-range Burkan-2 (Volcano-2) ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Although not the first of its kind, such a launch at such a sensitive time was carried out with Iran’s approval. It conveyed the message – both to the United States and to the reelected Iranian president – that the IRGC, which has the Leader’s support, has no intention of forgoing its ambitious goals either at home or abroad.
The West, of course, lauded the victory of the so-called “moderate,” pragmatic, reformist leader over his conservative, hardline opponent. The desire to return to “business as usual” with Iran is very strong. The galloping of Western companies, accompanied by delegations of politicians, is heard in the streets of Tehran. To the ordinary Iranians’ deep disappointment, human rights and civil society issues go almost unmentioned. As in the past, the West prefers to hide behind the fig leaf of a “reformist” president who – “helped by the will of the Iranian people” – defeated his ultra-conservative rival and proved that Iran is looking westward, wishing only to return to the international community’s good graces.
At the start of his second term, Rouhani faces a huge challenge both in the domestic and foreign spheres. At home, despite a change for the better in the macro- economic sense, he has not succeeded to bring about a tangible desired micro-economic improvement in Iranians’ lives. The distress of young Iranians, who constitute many of those who elected him, remains unchanged. The promises of the first term have not been borne out. Unemployment rates are still high, particularly among the educated young. Rouhani is again promising jobs, social justice, reforms, as well as personal and political freedom. Yet, he has not been able to secure the release from house arrest the leaders of the reformist camp, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Majlis (parliament) Chairman Mehdi Karroubi, to reopen reformist newspapers and websites, or to improve the human rights situation.
That failure continues to be felt, and Rouhani could not cite even a symbolic achievement to his supporters who cried, during the campaign rallies, “Ya Hossein, Ya Hossein.” On the other hand, the ongoing, now eight-year house arrest of the reformist “Green” leaders – whom young Iranians continue to regard as representing the hope for a change – reflects the regime’s fear of a resurgence of the protest movement that was violently suppressed in 2009. Hence, there may still be hope for a change in Iran under the right domestic and international circumstances.
The measures Rouhani alluded to during his election campaign for improving the economic situation – in particular, taxing individuals and entities connected to the IRGC economy (such as foundations that finance the export of the revolution, as well as aid Middle Eastern terror groups and families of “shahids”) – will likely put him on a direct collision course with the IRGC. Their economy constitutes more than half of the Iranian economy. It mainly benefits IRGC members and their families, who have become, since the revolution and the crucible of the Iran-Iraq War, a separate socioeconomic stratum. Rouhani’s task has become much harder since the death in 2017 of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One of the instigators of the Islamic revolution, a confidant of Khomeini, and the last line of defense against the IRGC, Rafsanjani tried to curb its growing influence on the economy, the military, and the Iranian government – without success and at a heavy personal price.
Externally, in the regional and international arenas, Iran is facing a bleeding Middle East that still has not assumed its final form and still is wracked by the upheavals of the “Arab Spring.” Iran is striving – mainly via the IRGC’s long arm – the Quds Force – to be a key factor in the reshaping of the Middle East in its own revolutionary Shiite supremacy vision. Iran is active in some of the main fronts in the Middle East, where their fate remains uncertain, seeking to ensure its control on the day after and guarantee a territorial Shiite strip that stretches from Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean with strategic posts on the Red Sea in Yemen.
In Syria, a long-time battleground in which Iran invests huge human and economic capital (at the expense of promoting its own economy and people), Iran is continuing, with Hizbullah’s help, to guarantee the survival of the Syrian president, remain in proximity to Israel’s borders, and fund and arm Shiite militias. In Iraq, Iran and the numerous Shiite militias it supports are working to liberate the cities that have fallen under Islamic State control; Iran is also striving to create a continuous Shiite swath that will lead through Syria to Lebanon and southward toward the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia as well. In addition, in Yemen, Iran is providing vital support to the tenacious Houthi struggle against the Saudi-led Arab coalition.
President Rouhani has no real control over foreign policy and the export of the revolution, and he does not determine Iran’s foreign policy goals. Those responsibilities are in the hands of Khamenei and the IRGC, who work to safeguard Iranian national interests in the turbulent region. They will not hesitate to challenge Rouhani with an ambitious and defiant foreign policy, especially toward the United States (the firing of the missile at Riyadh is a good example) and even provoke the United States if necessary (in the Strait of Hormuz and off the shores of Yemen) to “validate” the chant “Death to America,” which has accompanied the Islamic revolution for almost 40 years.
Rouhani, however, begins his second term just as the United States is taking a clear-cut stance at the forefront of the moderate, Saudi-led Sunni axis after it had been abandoned during President Obama’s eight years in office. The aim is to counteract the threat emanating from Iran.
Back to the Axis of Evil
Iran still has not shaken off its image as a member of the “axis of evil,” as President George W. Bush termed it. The mounting confrontation between the United States and North Korea (another member of that axis), along with Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria (another state in “the axis of evil”), which is using chemical weapons, further emphasizes Iran’s membership of the axis.
In a spate of defiant statements after Rouhani’s election, senior IRGC officials have already hinted that they do not intend to make his life easier domestically or externally or to take into account the possible ramifications of their activity on Iran’s foreign policy and Rouhani’s desire to improve ties with the West.
On May 25, 2017, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, said the IRGC was developing a new missile, the Dezful (named after the city in western Iran that the Iraqis failed to conquer in 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq War), in the third underground production plant to have been built in recent years, and that Iran would continue to advance its missile program. In his words: “It is natural for the United States and Israel to be concerned and nervous about our missile production, missile tests, and the display of our missile sites as they always want the Iranian nation to be in the position of weakness.”
Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan asserted, “Today, we have reached a point that we can design and produce all of our needs in the area of ballistic and cruise missiles.” The deputy chief of the IRGC intelligence branch, Hossein Nejat, said that Iran must neither project weakness to the enemy nor engage in a dialogue with the West to solve its economic and political problems since that option is doomed to fail. He also warned the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and vowed, “If the American aircraft carriers fire even one bullet toward Iran’s borders they will encounter a decisive response.” President Rouhani has also expressed support for the continued development of Iran’s missile program “for defensive purposes.”
Rouhani has very little influence over Iran’s foreign relations. He and his ministers, particularly Foreign Minister Zarif, are responsible for the charm offensive aimed at the West and the attempts to clean up after the IRGC. Mahmoud Nabavian – former Majlis member and vocal critic of the nuclear deal – accused Zarif of agreeing to hand over the Quds Forces commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani to Washington in exchange for establishing banking relationships with Tehran. Rouhani’s real influence over Iran’s strategic plans, which are devised by the powerful office of the Leader, is negligible. Iran’s deep involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will continue, and could even intensify toward the decisive stages of those imbroglios as plans emerge for the day after.
In the wake of President Trump’s visit to the region, renewed dialogue over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will probably again put Iran in a negative light. Iran is the leader of the so-called resistance camp that rejects any political settlement with Israel, and it funds and trains the terror organizations that work to foil such a settlement (Hizbullah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which Trump groups with the Islamic State).
In the Trump era, the Palestinians are not a main or even a secondary player. If, in the past, a regional peace agreement was to be paid for in the Israeli coin, now Iran’s lengthening shadow, coupled with the United States’ and the Sunni camp’s stance against Iran, pushes the Palestinian issue from the spotlight. Iran, for its part, is trying to put the Palestinians front and center again and to emphasize to the Arab street (over the heads of the pro-Trump Arab rulers) that it maintains its support for the Palestinians despite the “treason of the Arabs.” This policy is likely to escalate the friction between Tehran and Washington.
Rouhani Will Not Deliver
The Iranian population longs for reforms, for a change in the regime’s priorities including the resources that it allocates and for openness to the West. The last victory the conservatives achieved was in the parliamentary elections of 2012 (and then only after the reformists boycotted the elections). That does not prevent them, however, from dictating their policy both domestically and externally. During President Khatami’s term (1997-2005), change was almost in sight. But Khatami went too far and too fast, and the IRGC quickly halted the reform process and the freeing of the press that he impelled. In a letter they sent him after the student riots of July 1999, they criticized his leniency and told him in no uncertain terms that the reform process had ended. After the fraudulent 2009 elections in which Ahmadinejad “won” a second presidential term, there was a sense that a change was possible. But the silence of President Obama, who had taken office at the beginning of the year, along with his lack of support for the protest movement that had erupted after the elections, enabled the IRGC and the regime to crush the movement, and indeed led to its quiescence during the years of negotiations on the nuclear issue.
The Iranian elections have put President Rouhani on a double collision course. Domestically, his desire to bring about economic and social reform puts him at odds with the IRGC, which will not agree to any infringement of its economic assets nor to any laxity in implementing the Leader’s instructions regarding the values of the revolution at home and their export abroad. Externally, as the U.S. president renews the alliance with Middle Eastern states, his unequivocal remarks about Iran’s negative role in the region and support for the terror organizations put Iran and the United States at loggerheads. The United States has opened a new page in its Middle East policy and is challenging Iran, which regards itself as a rising regional superpower that will remold the Middle East both close to its borders (Iraq) and beyond them (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen). The growing confrontation with the United States will likely give a boost to the IRGC, which will probably portray Trump as “the enemy at the gate.”
It was one thing for Iran to pursue such a course during Obama’s presidency when it acted almost untrammeled in the region and openly defied the Fifth Fleet. The beginning of President Trump’s tenure heralds a change and a challenge to Iranian policy from the direction of Saudi Arabia as well, which leads the Sunni camp against Iran’s provocations. It appears that the renewed U.S. support for Saudi Arabia will encourage the kingdom to act more decisively against Iran and its expansionism, and that the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh along the Sunni-Shiite fault line will emerge more starkly in their main arenas of confrontation.
It is possible that by the time of the next elections in Iran, the U.S. president will no longer stand aloof.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.