(December 17, 2018 / JNS) Internal Iranian political tensions have increased in recent weeks, perhaps signaling that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is struggling to find a coherent strategy to deal with increasing domestic unrest.
Some analysts and much of the media, however, are misconstruing what is really going on in the country, playing up a conflict between hardliners and so-called moderates represented by President Hassan Rouhani.
It is mistaken to think that Iran has a real functioning parliament with opposing political parties as in Western democracies. In reality, the institutions of Iran are in name only with parliamentarians filtered before elections take place, guaranteeing that they are regime lackeys.
“The Islamist regime in Tehran is a theocratic mafiocracy,” Saeed Ghasseminejad, a senior adviser on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.
“Members of the mafia fight each other. They may have very different point of views on many important issues, and they may violently eliminate each other to have a larger share of the pie, but in the end, they are all members of a crime family,” said Ghasseminejad.
A former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a current member of parliament accused half of the Iranian parliament as seeking to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Karimi Ghoddousi charged that leaders of the “sedition” were seeking the downfall of the Islamic Republic, and “today, 50 percent of the MPs use the parliament’s podium to defend the leaders of the ‘sedition,’ ” according to the report by Radio Farda on Monday.
Last month, the secretary of the influential Expediency Discernment Council and former chief commander of the IRGC, Maj.-Gen. Mohsen Rezaee, claimed that “U.S. elements have infiltrated President Hassan Rouhani’s ministries,” adding that these individuals are “more active against Iran than Trump.”
Tehran has always been the scene of rivalry between these different factions, explained Ghasseminejad, adding that Iran’s foreign policy is not in the hands of Zarif, Rouhani or other senior officials, but in the hands of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“If Zarif is removed, then the way the policy dictated by the supreme leader will be implemented may be different, or it may be a sign that the supreme leader has decided to change the policy,” according to the Iran expert.
“Currently, Iran is waiting to see what will happen in the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and in the meantime, look into what the E.U. can do for them until then,” said Ghasseminejad.
The Iranian government is looking to preserve economic ties with Europe and the rest of the world despite U.S. sanctions in an effort to wait out Trump, hoping that he loses his re-election bid in 2020.
The Financial Times reported last month that Khamenei allegedly prevented hardliners from toppling Rouhani’s government in recent months—perhaps a sign that he sees continued value, for the time being, of having a “moderate” face for its dealings with Europe and Asian countries in an effort to play them off against the Trump administration.
The new U.S. sanctions and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal have contributed to the collapse of the Iranian currency, the rial, and soaring inflation, which have triggered protests. In actuality, the domestic state of affairs had been unsettled fiscally for some time before the reimposition of sanctions in August and November, but that has exacerbated the situation.
A strategy of ‘divide and conquer’
Ronen A. Cohen, an Iran expert and the chair of the Department of Middle East Studies at Israel’s Ariel University, said he sees Iran’s parliament as trying to divert the public’s attention from bad economic conditions because of sanctions and other issues.
“The Majles [Iranian parliament] wants the people to believe that their problems are mainly due to the sanctions in order to deflect attention from themselves,” said Cohen.
“At the end of the day,” continued Cohen, “the hardliners’ effort to delegitimize Rouhani’s government is part of the regime’s effort to show the public that it is doing its best to give the people a kind of hope and the sense that the ‘bad guys’ are being pushed aside.”
Internal tensions could be a sign that Khamenei is looking to change tactics when dealing with the economic problems and growing domestic unrest.
Meanwhile, Iran has ratcheted up tensions as of late, confirming last week that it had carried out a ballistic-missile test earlier this month.
The domestic unrest—combined with its aggressive expansionist ideology in the region, and the increasing military threats to Israel and the West—could be an explosive combination.
If the regime perceives that its stability is at risk in the coming years, it’s bound to take drastic measures and move in a more radical direction.
But for now, the regime is betting on being bailed out economically by European and other countries.
On Monday, E.U. Foreign Affairs and Security Policy head Federica Mogherini told reporters that a sanctions workaround to assist firms doing business with Iran will be in place by the end of the year.
As long as this strategy of “divide and conquer” succeeds, Iran’s leader will likely not feel pressured to bring down the Rouhani government, preferring that he and Zarif continue to travel the world and attempt to charm world leaders.