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Topsy Turvy in Tehran: The Fickle Nature of Iran’s Politics

In the 40 years since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran’s unelected management — namely the supreme leader and his mullahcratic appointees — has been consistently anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Semitic.  In contrast, the elected leadership — the president and the speaker of parliament—have been more malleable, and, in many cases, yesterday’s hardliners have become today’s moderates and vice versa. But in the end, the revolution always trumps political evolution in Tehran.

The Rouhani Redux

Internal political developments and external forces — namely protests and the signing of the Iran nuclear deal — have moderated reliable conservatives and hardened dependable reformists since 1979. The much-ballyhooed pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani is one such example, having resorted in recent months to threatening rhetoric, warning the West that an influx of “drugs, asylum seekers, bombs and terrorism” would accompany new sanctions on Iran. He also declared over the summer that his government was prepared to close the vital Strait of Hormuz, a passageway that carries a third of the world’s oil by sea every day. This line won Rouhani rare praise from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who remarked, “This is the same Dr. Rouhani that we knew and still know, and the one who should be.”

It was that Rouhani who was serving as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) during the crucible of the summer of 1999, when pro-democracy riots dominated debate in Tehran. Rouhani appeared at a counterdemonstration, warning that student instigators would be condemned to death as “enemies of the state” and “corrupt of the earth.”  He added, “Our revolution needs a thorough cleanup, and this will help advance the cause of the regime and the revolution.”

But a decade later, Rouhani’s posture shifted. In the aftermath of the 2009 electoral unrest that witnessed unprecedented demonstrations in Iran over a rigged result in favor of firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani commented that “[s]ome have claimed that people’s vote should be merely ceremonial but this is contrary to Ayatollah Khomeini’s views… Some are not happy that Ayatollah Khomeini barred the military from interfering in politics.”  What accounted for Rouhani going from militant theocrat to democrat?

The common denominator in Rouhani’s political acrobatics has been a ruthless pragmatism to survive and remain relevant in Tehran’s power hierarchy. During the student demonstrations of 1999, reformist leaders were on the defensive after backlash from the security establishment. Rouhani, therefore, likely saw no upside in casting his lot with Khatami’s besieged camp if he ever hoped to have a political future. Fast forward to 2009, and the opposite dynamic was at play. Reformists and pragmatic conservatives were on the offensive during the Green Movement unrest, protesting the heavy-handedness and overreach of the Ahmadinejad camp and its fellow travelers. Rouhani had the time and space from his perch at the helm of the Center for Strategic Research, a government think tank, to rebrand. It’s this resilience that is the organizing principle of his tenure.

Revolutionary Realignment

Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri is another example. He’s had a storied career in Iran — speaker of parliament and interior minister, to name a few positions. In 1997, he was also considered a hardliner’s hardliner, campaigning for president against the moderate Mohammad Khatami, who was dubbed by some commentators as an “Iranian Gorbachev.”  Media at the time documented how the supreme leader and the clerical elite supported Nateq-Nouri’s candidacy. After being trounced by Khatami, Nateq-Nouri continued his establishmentarian tendencies, undertaking sensitive assignments. For example, Iranian defectors produced documents that indicate Nateq-Nouri, on behalf of the supreme leader, greenlighted contacts between Tehran and al-Qaeda in the months before September 11, 2001. But by 2009, Nateq-Nouri had evolved. There were reports he endorsed Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi over Ahmadinejad and supported Hassan Rouhani for reelection as president in 2017. And in 2018, the same Nateq Nouri who once spoke of dabbling with al-Qaeda did not outright reject overtures by President Trump to engage in dialogue with Tehran’s theocracy.

Current Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has also evolved, rising from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s international henchman to Hassan Rouhani’s domestic wingman. It was during Larijani’s tenure as chief nuclear negotiator that Iran refused to suspend uranium enrichment, effectively reversing a Khatami-era concession. Fast forward to 2019, and Larijani shepherded the Iran nuclear deal through parliament, and there have been reports of reformists endorsing his likely candidacy for the presidency in 2021. Ditto for the late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, during his tenure, sat on a special committee which blessed plans for Iranian terrorism in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Riyadh, among others. Later in life, Rafsanjani reinvented himself as a force for moderation, famously remarking in 2016 that “[t]he world of tomorrow is the world of the discourse of the Islamic Revolution, not intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic weapons.”

Khamenei Reigns Supreme

Analysis of politics in Tehran revolves around the reformist versus hardliner dichotomy. The Iran-curious in the West have argued that integrating Tehran into the global financial architecture would have a moderating influence on the regime — and have sought to capitalize on the pragmatic mood swings of Iranian politicians, hoping that would change the nature of the regime. Yet, since 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei has thwarted, thrashed, and throttled every elected Iranian president across the ideological spectrum — former premiers Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad’s political careers all ended in humiliation. Khamenei famously forbade Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad from running for president again in 2013 and 2017, respectively. And security forces have limited Khatami’s movements to such an extent that in October 2017, they barred him from leaving his home to meet with political allies.

Speakers of parliament since 1989 have fared better — with Khamenei giving Mehdi Karroubi, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, and Ali Larijani the time and the space to pursue the presidency. But aside from Haddad Adel, who is an in-law of the supreme leader, the careers of Karroubi and Nategh-Nouri imploded even after they lost — with Karroubi under house arrest and Nategh-Nouri gradually falling out of favor with the supreme leader after he resigned as head of the supreme leader’s office of inspections in 2017. The jury is still out on Larijani in 2021. But, if past is prologue, he should be approaching the presidential elections warily — especially after one of his speeches was canceled in Karaj because he was not sufficiently “revolutionary.”

This trend stands in stark contrast with Iran’s unelected leadership. Since Ayatollah Khamenei became Supreme Leader in 1989, every head of the judiciary’s tenure has been career-making rather than career-ending. Mohammad Yazdi went on to become chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which supervises and selects the supreme leadership. The late Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi went on to serve as acting chairman of the Assembly of Experts, chairman of the Expediency Council, and was a candidate to succeed Ali Khamenei in the event of his death. Likewise for incumbent Sadegh Amoli Larijani whom Ayatollah Khamenei promoted as head of the Expediency Council while he still presides over the judiciary. This disunion stems from Khamenei’s desire for control over the system — stunting the growth of elected leaders, while nurturing the rise of unelected guardians of the regime.

The Islamic Republic’s politics are inherently unstable. But most metamorphoses within the mullahcracy amount to personal day trading — seeking leverage and longevity in Tehran’s halls of power. While posing and positioning make for provocative headlines and sometimes raise hopes internationally, the buck always stops with the supreme leader. Yesterday’s conservatives may become tomorrow’s reformists, but in the end, Khamenei’s revolutionary conservatism reigns supreme.