Timothy Jenkins is Parliamentary Researcher with a particular interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics working in the House of Commons. This article was written in a personal capacity.
November 2013 could well mark the turning point for Iran’s relationship with the West. The second round of talks held in Geneva between the Islamic Republic and the “P5 + 1” has resulted in a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. However, this is only an interim agreement, and there is still much that could go wrong over the next six months to scupper both a future deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and its rapprochement with the West.
There are many in Iran who stand to lose from a less isolated state, and see any deal with the US as a betrayal of Khomeini’s Revolution and will do anything to stop it – as a glance at Iran’s recent history shows. November 2013 is not only notable for the Geneva talks. It also marks 34 years since the US Embassy in Tehran was invaded by a mob, leading to a hostage crisis that would define Iran’s poor relationship with the West. This year, a group of Iranian hardliners organized a concert at the site of the former US embassy and chanted “death to America” to mark the anniversary in clear defiance of President Rouhani’s efforts at detente.
The Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Khamenei, made a significant intervention the day that the second round of Geneva talks were beginning, during a televised address to an assembly of Basij commanders. He said that he insisted on “not retreating one step from the rights of the Iranian nation”. He even warned the negotiating team that they “must respect these limits” when talking with “enemies and opponents”.
This was not the most helpful interventions Rouhani could have hoped for going into talks with the P5 + 1, during which Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had to convince the international community that Iran was negotiating in good faith, and that it is a rational actor that can be trusted to abide by international norms. Recent events also highlight the division within Iran’s leadership. Iran, more than any other State in existence today, suffers from a split personality, entrenched in the country’s politics through the constituted position of Supreme Leader, which has made Iran a Presidential Republic run under the auspices of theocrats.
For many conservatives and radicals, the attempt by pragmatists to reconcile the ideological dogma of the early years of the Islamic Republic with the practicalities of running a country was a direct affront to the Khomeini’s revolutionary, theocratic model of government, as well as to their legitimacy through the patronage of the Supreme Leader.
When Hashemi Rafsanjani became President in 1989, shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the economy was in freefall and the people were looking beyond the divine mission of the state that the Islamic Republic had set out, and wanted a government that dealt with the more wordly problems of the Iranian people. This was articulated by Rafsanjani’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vilayati when he said that “economic considerations overshadow political priorities” at a time when Iran was attempting to move its foreign policy to a more quietist position to attract foreign investment.
Ayotollah Ahmad Jannati of the Guardian Council told President Rafsanjani that the role of the state should be to support “true Islamic culture by reinforcing [the] religious bedrock of the people and fighting all those who are anti-Islamic and Western-stricken”. The then Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Khamenei ,made his views on Rafsanjani’s foreign policy clear when he said: “Any rapprochement between America and Iran is out of the question, and we will not permit American corporations to invest in Iran”.
This bellicose and ideologically driven policy stance of Iran’s revolutionary establishment since 1979 has made it almost impossible for any Iranian Government to normalise relations with the West, even when it has been willing to do so. Ali Khatami, the former reformist President who took office during the 1990s, despite the Supreme Leader publicly backing his rival, fell foul to attacks from hardliners – including the shooting in March 2000 of Saeed Hajjarian, one of his closest advisors, who was severely disabled by an extremist vigilante group, with the backing of hardline clerics.
This attack, and others like it, have uncomfortable echoes today with the recent murder of Safdar Rahmat Abadi, Deputy Industry Minister who was shot dead in Tehran by an assailant who was seemingly in the car with him. No group has yet claimed responsibility.
The Supreme Leader has so far been willing to give Rouhani political support. After Rouhani returned from the UN, Khamenei posted on his website: “We support the diplomatic initiative of the government and attach importance to its activities in this trip.” However, he also warned that ”some of what happened in the New York trip was not proper”, in a rebuke over Rouhani’s telephone conversation with President Obama – which shows the Supreme Leader’s support has its limitations. The attacks on the deal within the Guardian Council and Majlis have been muted so far but without the Supreme Leader providing political cover these attacks will grow in intensity.
Rouhani’s success in negotiating a deal with the West without losing face has strengthen his position immeasurably, and the Supreme Leader has given his unequivocal support for the deal, saying that the agreement was the “basis for the next wise steps”. However, hardliners in the 1990s may have recognised the necessity of Rafsanjani’s economic liberalism, but they brooked no interference when he sought limited social reform, and hamstrung him politically.
Rouhani has promised much to his supporters, and he is already encountering resistance from the conservative-dominated parliament and judiciary, who have prevented several reformist newspapers from reopening and rejected Rouhani’s nominee for minister of sport three times.
If Rouhani seeks to enact the domestic reforms he has promised and begins to reach out to the international community, the attacks on him will increase and the Supreme Leader’s support will evaporate if he feels his position is threatened. It is the domestic conflict between the pragmatists and the hardline ideologues that has a direct impact on Iran’s foreign policy – and it is this internal conflict that will decide whether Rouhani is able to both reach a final agreement with the international community, and then convince the hardliners to stick to it.