This Is Not What a “Moderating” Iran Looks Like in the Wake of the Nuclear Deal

David Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos

Contributing editor, The Daily Beast

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by David Patrikarakos ~

From the Blog

In post-deal Iran, the Supreme Leader is hardening his anti-American stance.

On July 20, 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, finally accepted UN Resolution 598 calling for a ceasefire to the eight-year long war with Iraq. Khomeini was distraught. “Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom. Happy are those who have lost their lives in this convoy of light,” he said. “Unhappy am I that I still survive and have drunk the poisoned chalice.”

For Khomeini, agreeing to a ceasefire was as bitter as drinking poison. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had started the war by invading Iran on September 22, 1980, and Khomeini had promised to crush its forces. In the end, he had to settle for a draw. It was an almost unpardonable sign of weakness.

Something had to be done, and it was. The Iranian regime began, en masse, to slaughter political prisoners held in its jails. The killings continued for five months. Most of the victims were members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that had fought with Saddam against Iran during the war. Just six days after the ceasefire, on July 26, Iran had repelled a final incursion from Iraq consisting of around 7,000 MEK fighters, and many thought the killings were done partly in revenge.

But many members of other opposition groups, including the Fedaian and the Tudeh (Communist) Parties, were executed as well. The numbers of those killed range from 4,500 to around 30,000. It was a purge unprecedented in Iran’s modern history. The regime was sending a clear message: we may have come to agreement with Iraq but we remain steadfast. Compromise had only made the Islamic Republic more determined to reassert its most fundamentalist self.

Just over 25 years later, the Islamic Republic of Iran was forced to compromise once again when, after more than a decade of negotiations, the crisis over its nuclear program was brought to a resolution of sorts with the deal agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five UN Security Council powers and Germany) on July 14, 2014. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a complex deal and the two sides spent months haggling over technicalities. But it essentially rested on cutting, as far as possible, Iran’s two paths to a nuclear bomb.

The first path, uranium enrichment, was settled when Iran agreed to drastically reduce the number of enrichment centrifuges and to reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium—which can be enriched to weapons-grade levels. The second path, plutonium production at its Arak Heavy Water facility, was tackled through an Iranian commitment to alter the specifications of the site, so that the spent fuel produced there could not be used to make a bomb. Iran also conceded to a more rigorous (though still imperfect) inspections regime. In return, it got the sanctions relief it desperately needed, as well as an agreement from the P5+1 to unfreeze Iranian assets worth around $100 billion.

The effects of the deal, both political and commercial, were almost immediate. Just over a month after it was signed, the UK re-opened its embassy in Tehran (it was shut down in 2011 after being stormed by Iranian protesters) as London sought to quickly improve political ties with the Islamic Republic. European and American firms were also quick to make their interest in accessing Iran’s huge consumer and energy markets clear. Everyone from Apple, which has reportedly contacted Iranian distributors, to German pharmaceutical firm Bayer AG, seems eager to grab their share of the riches that an opened up Iranian economy can bring. And this desire is only getting stronger. In January, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in Italy for trade talks. Mindful of his religious sensibilities, the Italians covered up the ancient nude statues at Rome’s Capitoline Museum for his meeting with Italy’s president, while at official lunches and dinners no alcohol was served.

In post-deal Iran, Khamenei has to work even harder to prove to his hardliners that the JCPOA is not the beginning of a gradual slide toward the abandonment of the Islamic Republic’s rejectionist stance.

The major powers, notably the U.S. and Russia, are also keen to start the process of Tehran’s international rehabilitation. In October, they even extended to Iran an invitation to international talks on the Syrian civil war, something that would have been unthinkable a mere six months ago. The Islamic Republic, it seems, is back in fashion.

These developments are not in themselves negative. Iran is a huge state that occupies a vital geostrategic position in the Middle East; it has a sizeable, educated population, vast energy resources and serious regional influence. Trying to bring it in from the cold is not merely desirable but necessary. An Iran that the West can work with would be a powerful ally indeed; the impulse for improved relations is the correct one.

The question is how far the deal has achieved this goal. Iran got the sanctions relief it wanted but it has come at a cost, not least for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardliners that surround him. For them, the ideological basis of the Islamic Republic (as opposed to its theological basis) is in many ways opposition to the West, most notably, the “Great Satan,” the U.S.

Much, though by no means all, of the revolutionary impulse that overthrew the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1979 was the belief that the monarch had made Iran too subservient to foreign interests. Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, promised his people that never again would the country be a pawn of external, “imperial” powers. Na sharqi na qarbi—“Neither East Nor West”—has been a guiding political principle for the regime ever since.

So the nuclear deal has proved not just problematic but unsettling for Iran’s hardliners. It lifted the sanctions, which Tehran with its suffering economy badly needed, but at the same time it opened up the country to the West—a move antithetical to everything the Islamic Republic supposedly stands for.

In order to be true to the Islamic Republic’s founding principles, Khamenei—despite allowing Rouhani to make the deal—must continue to resist “pernicious” foreign influence; even more importantly, he must be seen to resist it. So in post-deal Iran, Khamenei has to work even harder to prove to his hardliners that the JCPOA is not the beginning of a gradual slide toward the abandonment of the Islamic Republic’s rejectionist stance.

But Rouhani and his technocratic foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif both favor improved relations with the West—and the policy has wide support among the Iranian people. Adequately reassuring his hardliners, therefore, means one thing above all: sending a signal to those of a more reformist bent that the nuclear deal is not a sign of weakness, and that the Islamic Republic’s founding principles remain intact.

Since almost the moment it signed the deal the regime has sought to deal with this problem on two levels. The first is rhetorically. Yes, a deal was made, but, as Khamenei said in October, relations with the U.S. will be limited to the nuclear sphere.

Critically, these comments overruled Rouhani’s own statements that Iran would be willing to work with the U.S. in order to help find a solution to the bloodbath in Syria. The fact that Zarif subsequently took part in the November Vienna conference on Syria (which could never happen without Khamenei’s permission) shows that contact will continue. Khamenei’s words were uttered solely to appease Iran’s hard Right.

And his harsh words have not just been confined to negotiations between the two countries. As Akbar Ganji noted in The Guardian, between August and October 2014, Khamenei made no fewer than seven speeches criticizing the U.S. more generally—denouncing everything from its historical relations with Iran to its supposed goals of global domination, as well as attacking Iranian groups he accused of trying to rehabilitate the U.S.’s image in the country by putting “makeup on the face of this great Satan…to present it as an angel.”

Iranian Naval forces successfully fired three home-made Nour coast-to-sea cruise missiles on the third day of wargames along the country's southeastern coast, January 29, 2016. Photo: Fars News Agency

Iranian Naval forces successfully fired three home-made Nour coast-to-sea cruise missiles on the third day of wargames along the country’s southeastern coast, January 29, 2016. Photo: Fars News Agency

Fevered rhetoric—especially against the U.S.—is nothing new in Iran, even, or perhaps more correctly, especially when the regime is under pressure. As an unscientific rule of thumb, the more precarious Iran’s position, the more defiant and bombastic its leaders’ rhetoric becomes. Nonetheless, the intent is clear. Overall détente with the U.S. (President Barack Obama’s goal since he first offered to extend a hand in friendship to Iran just months after coming to office in 2009) is as distant as it has ever been.

But in post-deal Iran the desire to resist U.S. influence and to reassert the Islamic Republic’s fundamental self is no longer confined to rhetoric—and here we come to the second level. While nothing approaching the mass slaughter of the late 1980s has occurred, the regime is unquestionably starting to clamp down on dissent and “foreign agents”—real or imagined. And it is here that the intensifying post-deal battle between hardliners and those cautious reformers within the regime who remain wedded to the Islamic Republic but want improved relations with the West, is most obviously seen.

Care needs to be taken here. The term “reformer” can be a misleading one. Rouhani and Zarif are certainly reformist-minded when compared to Khamenei, but they remain fixtures of the Islamic Republic’s establishment class and will not threaten its core values. More serious potential reformers—like the many people excluded from the candidate lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections in February (including Khomeini’s grandson), not to mention Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who, after being cheated out of his presidential victory in 2009, became something of a genuine reformer and sits in house arrest in Tehran to this day—are not allowed anywhere near the levers of power.

Nonetheless, the battle between Rouhani and his clique, and those surrounding the Supreme Leader, is clear to see. At the end of October the regime arrested Siamak Namazi, a prominent Iranian-American businessman, in what was the clearest signal yet that the Islamic Republic may be returning to its most egregious self. In January, Iran agreed to release four American hostages, among them Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and former U.S. marine Amir Hekmati, in the run-up to “Implementation Day”—the much-anticipated day for the lifting of nuclear-related international sanctions on Iran. Namazi, however, remains incarcerated, with only alarmingly vague pledges on the part of the Obama Administration to secure his eventual freedom.

What makes the situation even more alarming is that Namazi’s arrest, on charges that are still unknown, was followed just days later by the arrest of Nazar Zaka, a Lebanese-American (who, while not a citizen, is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.), also on suspicion of espionage.

The timing of these arrests is deliberate. They constitute political messaging at its bluntest: the product of Khamenei’s desire to let it be known that Iran may have compromised on its nuclear program, but it won’t show any further “weakness.” Crucially, the message is intended not just for Rouhani and the ostensible moderates around him, but also the U.S., which can’t ignore the imprisonment of its citizens and residents abroad.

The arrests of Americans constitute political messaging at its bluntest: the product of Khamenei’s desire to let it be known that Iran may have compromised on its nuclear program, but it won’t show any further “weakness.”

In this regard, the choice to arrest Namazi is especially instructive. Based in Dubai, he is the Head of Strategic Planning at Crescent Petroleum. Of crucial importance is that he was for a long time a consultant and advisor, helping companies, including major multinationals, develop “trade and investment opportunities” in the Middle East, especially Iran. He used to be part of Atieh Bahar Consulting, an Iran-based family firm that, using its links to the regime, helped foreign companies do business in the Islamic Republic.

Put simply: Namazi would likely be a key figure in opening the Iranian economy up to the West. (Which is one reason why there has been persistent chatter about his apparent financial support for the National Iranian American Council, which is viewed by many in Congress as a lobby for the Iranian regime.) To make matters worse for him, he is associated with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the hugely influential, pragmatically-minded cleric and vastly wealthy businessman who also favors a more practical and open approach to Iran’s international relations.

Going after Namazi, and then Zaka, sends a clear message from the hardliners to the Iran’s pro-Western business elite: You will fail. To the U.S. the message is equally clear: Despite the nuclear deal, and the best efforts of Iran’s president and foreign minister, there will be no détente. In fact, just like in 1988 at the close of the war with Iraq, Iran will only become more “steadfast” in the face of “imperialism.” The nuclear deal may have slowed Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb but it has also fallen prey to the law of unintended consequences. It has forced the Iranian “deep state,” made up of the security and intelligence forces in concert with political hardliners, to re-emerge, reassert its authority, reassure its base, and show Iranians and the U.S. it won’t be pushed around.

Into this toxic mix has stepped Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the component of the Iranian armed forces that is charged with safeguarding the Islamic Revolution and protecting the country from foreign influence. The IRGC is home to Iran’s “true believers,” those most ideologically dedicated to the state’s core principles. More than this, though, the IRGC is now arguably the country’s most powerful organization—militarily and economically. There is no area of Iran’s economy that the IRGC doesn’t have a stake in—the group’s annual turnover from its business interests is estimated to be around $12 billion.

How exactly the group feels about the deal is open to interpretation. On the one hand, it has made huge sums of money from sanctions-busting enterprises that will now come to an end and in so doing cost it money. On the other hand, however, both the Iranian government and its people should benefit economically from an opened-up Iran, which means a larger financial pie from which the group can take its slice.

Make no mistake: Khamenei needs the IRGC. It is on them, and not his fellow clerics, that much of his power now rests.

But if Khamenei fears greater foreign influence in Iran, the IRGC has an almost pathological loathing of the prospect. And make no mistake: Khamenei needs the IRGC. In 2009 he publicly backed the IRGC-backed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the mass street protests over Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election. In so doing, Khamenei turned away from many of his fellow mullahs in the Shi’a holy city of Qom and threw his lot in with the IRGC. It is on them, and not his fellow clerics, that much of his power now rests.

Khamenei made sure to keep the organization onside as the nuclear negotiations rumbled slowly toward an agreement, backing them, and especially their foreign wing, the Qods Force, on regional issues. From Iraq to Syria to Yemen to Lebanon, Iran’s meddling—headed up by the Qods Force’s Qasem Soleimani—has received almost unequivocal support from all arms of the Iranian state. The result has been to further mire the Middle East in chaos. Iranian assistance to the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Shia militias in Iraq, one of which recently captured a group of American contractors, has served only to prolong conflict and increase bloodshed.

Pointedly, the nuclear deal made no mention of Iran’s regional behavior. It stuck, largely at Iran’s insistence, to nuclear issues alone. Sanctions relief does not come with any commitment to scaling back Iranian activities in other countries. Indeed, now that the sanctions have been lifted, the IRGC will likely feel the benefits of both an enlarged Iranian economy and of taking a healthy slice of $100 billion worth of unfrozen assets.

Everything points to the IRGC further growing in power over the coming years. Soleimani has become something of a social media celebrity, with photos of him on various frontlines appearing across all the major platforms. Photos of Qods force commanders in Syrian trenches don’t appear by accident. It is clear that there is a concerted media campaign inside Iran to promote Soleimani as the face of a new and resurgent Islamic Republic. The possibility that he may run against Rouhani as a conservative candidate for President in 2017 cannot be discounted.

For now, Iran’s predicament depressingly resembles the latter years of the tenure of President Mohammed Khatami (a man far more liberal than Rouhani), who saw his attempts to liberalize Iran opposed—and ultimately crushed—by hardliners at every step. But then Khatami had not forced the Supreme Leader to compromise so sharply. The imperative to crush opposition is far stronger now than during the Khatami period.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC's second-in-command. Photo: Fars News Agency

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s second-in-command. Photo: Fars News Agency

On February 26, 2016 Iran will hold a round of parliamentary elections, at which point the constellation—and relative power of—political forces inside post-deal Iran will become even clearer. The Guardians Council has already blocked 99 percent of the 3,000 reformist candidates on offer. Since the JCPOA, Iran has not progressed but regressed.

As 2016 dawned Iranian officials were, if anything, even more defiant than in recent months. On January 1 at Friday prayers, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s second-in-command, announced that Iran would expand its missile capabilities. “We don’t have enough space to store our missiles. All our depots and underground facilities are full,” he boasted.

Salami’s statement was pointed and calculated—as everything said at major Friday prayer sermons in Tehran always is. And it was merely the latest rhetorical broadside in what has been the unchanging Iranian message since the JCPOA was unveiled on July 14 last year: The post-deal Islamic Republic is going to be harder to handle. The world had better get used to that.

Banner Photo: Sayyed Shahab-O-Din Vajedi / Wikimedia