In Iran, domestic and foreign policies are mutually inclusive. Domestic maneuvering to either restrict or open the political arena shapes Iran’s regional and global diplomacy just as much as Iran’s engagement beyond its borders shapes the balance of power between reformists, conservatives, and hardliners. That balance has shifted toward the latter, especially those linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) certainly hurt the reformists; but it was Iran’s Syria gambit and the ensuing escalation of regional sectarian conflict that have undermined their political fortunes. By 2016, the aftershocks of this conflict had reached into Iran as Islamic State (IS) partisans forged links with militant groups in the country’s Sunni-majority border provinces.
While the impact of these links is hard to measure, there is no doubt that from the vantage point of the security forces, “Wahhabi terrorism”––an Iranian euphemism linking militants fighting the Syria regime to Saudi Arabia––has emerged as a major threat to Iran’s internal stability. This development has strengthened hardline security officials and political leaders. Convinced that the United States is responsible for the rise of IS and other jihadist movements, they have tried to isolate reformists by asserting that in times of growing security threats, all political forces must unite behind the drive for national unity and Shia solidarity. From their side, reformists are unsure about how to respond to their rivals. Some have assailed Iran’s military venture in Syria, insisting that it has come at the cost of economic and social development at home. President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, espouses a less confrontational, wait-and-see approach. But regional and global conditions, not least of which is Trump’s sudden decision to pull troops out of Syria, give hardliners reason to celebrate, even as they prepare for the next battle with what they believe are US-supported jihadist forces.
Regional and global conditions, not least of which is Trump’s sudden decision to pull troops out of Syria, give hardliners reason to celebrate, even as they prepare for the next battle with what they believe are US-supported jihadist forces.
Hardliners Are from Mars, Reformists Are from Venus
Serious differences between Iran’s hardliners and reformists have influenced how the Islamic Republic made its decisions regarding Syria. Hardliners see the world through a conspiratorial lens that attributes all perceived challenges to Iran’s security––including its interests in Syria––to American and Israeli machinations. This vision is rooted in a religiously inspired revolution whose overriding impulse was to resist foreign control, exemplified currently by the United States and its regional surrogates. Even the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988 is seen as a US-supported venture in which hundreds of thousands of young men were killed or wounded in military operations or as a result of poison gas attacks. Many of that war’s veterans are now soldiers in the IRGC, an organization whose constitutionally mandated mission is to protect the ideological and religious purity of the revolution.
The IRGC’s influence grew following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Eastern European “Color Revolutions” of the early 2000s that demanded liberal democracy and open political systems. These events confirmed the hardliners’ conviction that the United States intended to use whatever means necessary––including soft and hard power—to topple governments that supposedly opposed American hegemony. To thwart Washington, hardliners repressed all domestic forces they deemed a fifth column of US influence: to them, the reformists. Their assault reached new heights with the repression of the 2009 Green Movement following that year’s presidential elections. In the ensuing years, the hardliners’ bid to fuse their worldview of foreign enemies with the state vastly narrowed the space for advocates of a more open politics and relations with the world.
After 2009, the hardliners’ bid to fuse their worldview of foreign enemies with the state vastly narrowed the space for advocates of a more open politics and relations with the world.
By contrast, the reformists assert that some forms of engagement with the West would in fact strengthen the Islamic Republic. This conviction flows not merely from their desire to secure western investment; their advocacy of engagement stems from the fact that many reformists have lived in the West and even obtained graduate degrees from European and American universities. Mohammad Khatami’s (1997-2005) dialogue of civilizations and Hassan Rouhani’s advocacy of a concept of nonviolent engagement that he called the WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) were not mere propaganda. These slogans underscore the reformists’ belief that the struggle to realize the Islamic Republic’s ideals has to be reconciled with Iran’s basic interests as a modern state.
Sunni Jihadism in the Eyes of Hardliners and Reformists
After Rouhani was elected in 2013, he opened the political space for reformists to revive their vision of a more liberal economic and political order. The 2015 JCPOA was meant to be the linchpin for Rouhani’s efforts. But despite all the smiles on view at the deal’s Geneva signing, by this time events in Syria and Iraq had created new geostrategic realities, all of which promised to undermine any bid by reformists to pursue engagement abroad and a more open politics at home.
One of these realities was Iran’s growing military role in Syria. Its intervention was prompted not merely by Tehran’s conviction that Iran would suffer a first order strategic loss with the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The deeper concern animating Iran’s actions was an abiding fear of Saudi Arabia-backed Sunni jihadists. Iran’s hardliners viewed the battle in Syria as a religious war of the righteous Shia against impious Sunnis and their vanguard of so-called “salafi terrorists.” By contrast, the more secularly oriented reformists viewed Sunni jihadism largely as a political and strategic challenge. They argued that the best way to counter it was not by espousing a religiously based rationale for action––or, for that matter, by relying on military force––but also by using smart statecraft and nuanced global diplomacy.
Iranian reformists argued that the best way to counter “salafi terrorism” was not by espousing a religiously based rationale for action––or, for that matter, by relying on military force––but also by using smart statecraft and nuanced global diplomacy.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif championed this realist position. Apart from his key role in the nuclear negotiations, Zarif tried to secure a seat for Tehran in the January 2014 Geneva II Syria peace talks. But Syrian opposition groups, some of which were Saudi-backed, blocked Iran’s participation in the talks. This development not only undercut Zarif but also undermined ongoing track II talks aimed at developing ideas for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.* Prompted by Tehran, whose forces had failed to turn back the flow of IS troops into Syria, in September 2015 Russia began a military intervention that allowed IRGC forces to go on the offensive. Their expanding military footprint ensured that Zarif and his reformist allies would have little to no substantive role in determining Syria’s political future.
A Sectarian (Shia) War to Defend the Shia Homeland
In a May 2016 meeting that he held with families of Iranians killed in Syria and Iraq, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that “if these martyrs did not stop the enemy…we would have to fight the enemy in Kermanshah and Hamedan and other provinces.” The remark highlighted the regime’s growing fear that in the Sunni-majority Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish border provinces, separatist forces were securing military support from Sunni jihadist groups across Iran’s porous borders.
Although perhaps exaggerated, these concerns were not unjustified. In May 2015, Iranian Intelligence Minister Seyed Mahmoud Alavi said that security forces arrested several IS-linked terrorist cells planning bombing attacks in Mashhad, Zahedan, and Shiraz. That same month security forces killed the leader of Ansar al-Forqan, a Sunni jihadist group in Sistan and Baluchistan. Throughout 2016, security forces reportedly tangled with IS-linked jihadist attacks in the Sunni-majority provinces of Baluchistan and Kurdistan, not to mention Arabistan where the Arab minority, the Ahwazis, have complained about discrimination. As if to confirm the security forces’ worst concerns, in March 2017 the Islamic State released a Farsi-language video calling for Iranian Sunnis to join the path of jihad against the regime.
But it was the bloody September 24, 2018 assault on a military parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahvaz that had the greatest nationwide impact. The government not only blamed the attack on “Takfiri separatist groups supported by the reactionary Arab countries,” but in the ensuing months the regime invoked a potent mix of nationalist and Shia symbols. The hybrid concept of an “Iranian Islam” (as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had once dubbed it) offered a useful ideological umbrella for mobilizing public support against the so-called Wahhabi enemies. That the September attack came on the 38th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war provided additional symbolic fuel for the regime’s push for unity in the name of Iranian nationalism and Shia ideology.
The September 2018 attack on a military parade in Khuzestan came on the 38th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war and provided additional symbolic fuel for the regime’s push for unity in the name of Iranian nationalism and Shia ideology.
Apart from its presumed unifying effect, this campaign seems to have another purpose: to draw attention away from the more prosaic motivations behind Iran’s intervention in Syria—namely, to protect Assad’s regime. Although the number of Iranian casualties surpassed 1,000 in 2016, the government had tried to downplay the conflict by not giving it significant attention in the press and by keeping the public away from the 40th day mourning services—a powerful ritual that in previous years had figured as a central part of the regime’s wartime mobilizing efforts. Moreover, Iran’s hardliners justified their government’s intervention in religious terms, arguing that the Islamic Republic was protecting Shia holy shrines in Syria. The escalation of IS-linked attacks in 2017-18 compelled the regime to play the Shia-sectarian card with even greater determination. In keeping with the hardliners’ ideological preoccupations, Iranian officials emphasized that these attacks were also part of a western plot to foment insecurity throughout Iran.
Reformists Navigate an Ideological and Religious Minefield
In a time of escalating regional conflict, such claims have made it doubly hard for reformists to raise questions about the sagacity and costs of Iran’s Syria gambit. Nevertheless, such questions have been raised implicitly and sometimes explicitly. The potential risks associated with such efforts were evident in June 2016, when Foreign Minister Zarif fired Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, his deputy for Arab and African affairs. The firing of this outspoken hardliner provoked an outcry in IRGC media outlets, which not only praised Amir-Abdollahian as the “embodiment of ‘Islamic Revolution diplomacy’,” but in addition, hardliners claimed that Zarif had fired him to placate the United States and its Gulf Arab allies. Zarif, of course, rejected such an assertion, while Rouhani issued his own implicit rebuke of his rivals, insisting that “if we want to chant slogans, we should not do so at people’s expense.”
This was a risky strategy, as was demonstrated in May 2017 when former Tehran mayor and Rouhani ally Gholamhossein Karbaschi denounced the hardliners’ claim that IRGC troops were in Syria to defend Shia shrines. Karbaschi’s assertion that Iran should use “the power of diplomacy to resolve regional issues” rather than “killing and beating” provoked quick retaliation when an Isfahan court charged him with insulting those who were “martyred” in Syria and seeking to defend lands in the region in which “the oppressed are defended and the Shiites are empowered.” As a result, Karbaschi—who has long been a thorn in the side of the hardliners—was barred from campaigning in the then-upcoming parliamentary elections.
Until well into 2017, such elite confrontations over Iran’s regional policies did not appear to have a major ripple effect in the wider national arena. But in December of that year, the onset of public protests in provincial towns and villages against corruption and economic disparity created a new political reality. With protesters shouting slogans such as “My life for Iran, not for Gaza or Lebanon,” any bid by reformists to question Iran’s Syria policies took on far wider political meaning and hazard. Still, some reformists have taken this risk. Thus in June 2018 parliamentarian Behrouz Bonyadi asserted before parliament that Iran’s regional policies had come at the expense of “$60 billion dollars of investments.” Moreover, he denounced the government’s efforts to legitimate its violent clampdown on the protesters by linking the demonstrators to the United States and other supposed enemies.
The Battle Continues
In the context of economic and social crises, escalating security threats at home, the Islamic State’s bid to link up with Sunni militant groups in key border provinces, and a US administration waging economic war, it is not obvious what reformists will gain by confrontation. Thus, Rouhani has followed a difficult path. On the one hand, he has assailed the clampdown on street protesters. Iran’s leaders, he insisted, must understand that “the views of the young generation about life and the world is different than ours.” On the other hand, he has called for national unity and solidarity, thus echoing his hardline rivals. The goal of this balancing act, it seems, is to win time for reformists, who in 2020 and 2021 will face parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively.
Rouhani has called for national unity and solidarity, thus echoing his hardline rivals. The goal of this balancing act, it seems, is to win time for reformists, who in 2020 and 2021 will face parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively.
Those elections could be an uphill battle. Indeed, as President Trump pulls US troops from Syria, the hardliners can celebrate another victory, even as they—and the Russians––prepare for the next battle between Shia forces and what the hardliners believe are US-backed Sunni jihadist forces.
* The author participated in some of these meetings over a three-year period.