Hard-liners Fight for Iran’s Presidency and Foreign Policy

Former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who during the Obama Administration played a pivotal role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, recently asserted in an interview with CNBC that “there are probably … about 10 weeks left for some serious diplomacy … before the Iranian elections will naturally call for a bit of a reset.” That certainly is an understatement. While experience suggests that Iran’s electoral politics can produce sudden and sometimes welcome surprises, the chances that the June 18 presidential election will go to a hard-liner are very strong.

A hard-line victory will not set up or invite a “Nixon goes to China” moment. For the last two years, opponents of negotiating any deal with the United States on the nuclear issue—or any other matter—have been consolidating power. The hard-liners’ control of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, has given them an arena to pass laws whose ultimate purpose is to wreck diplomacy with the United States and Europe. Moniz’s observation—made in the same interview—that “time is running out for the United States to engage in meaningful diplomacy with Iran” is more to the point. As the diplomatic clock ticks away, the White House and Tehran will probably have to choose between waiting until after the June elections, or revving up the behind-the-scenes talks that administration officials insist are ongoing. To have any hope of success, these talks will have to offer something more ambitious than “a bit of a reset” to prevent a major collision between the United States and Iran.

Biden’s Quandary

The hard-liners’ ongoing crusade to control foreign policy presents the Biden Administration with a quandary. While the political space in Iran for reaching a deal is rapidly shrinking, to even hint that the White House is influenced by Iran’s internal politics will only strengthen the opposition in Congress to any deal that involves giving Iran what it demands: verifiable US steps to remove all nuclear-related sanctions before Iran begins moving back to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Robert Malley, the administration’s top Iran negotiator, has not offered any public sign that the White House might drop or modify its position that Tehran must make the first move by coming into “compliance” with the requirements of the JCPOA. Moreover, he recently told Axios news that Iran’s elections are “not a factor” in the American position and that “the pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending US national security interests.” Malley’s statement suggests that Washington—like Tehran—is sticking to its diplomatic, and actual, guns.

The administration’s position is understandable. To telegraph that it is in any rush to reach an agreement would be bad diplomacy and bad domestic politics. But the White House’s Iran team, starting with Malley, is surely not unconcerned about the implications of failed talks for Iran’s internal politics. On the contrary, if the previous administration was dominated by policy makers whose bottom line was that there is no difference between hard-liners and moderates, the Biden foreign policy team has enough experience and knowledge to know that Iran’s internal struggles are playing a central role in determining the boundaries of its foreign policy. The problem for the administration is that those boundaries have shifted in ways that are making it hard—or perhaps impossible—for Iranian leaders who favor diplomacy in to exercise significant influence.

Iran’s Hard-liners Try to Seize the Foreign Policy Agenda

This situation is not merely a consequence of the Trump Administration’s ill-conceived decision to spurn the JCPOA. In a more fundamental way, the narrowing space for diplomacy available to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stems from the hard-liners’ long-standing fear that any foreign policy victory by their rivals might create space for Iran’s besieged reformists to reassert influence. Because they worry that diplomatic détente abroad could favor political détente at home, the hard-liners have been doubly determined to silence any Iranian leaders who dare to advance an even modest program of political reforms.

Because they worry that diplomatic détente abroad could favor political détente at home, the hard-liners have been doubly determined to silence any Iranian leaders who dare to advance an even modest program of political reforms.

The last major effort to advance such reforms came in Spring 2019, when the reformists controlled about 40 percent of the seats in parliament. Seeking to flex their muscles—and probably aware that hard-liners would prevail in the 2020 elections—they proposed constitutional reforms to strengthen the authority of the parliament and, by implication, to corral the power of the Guardian Council, the powerful 12-member body that oversees legislation and elections.

But this effort was quickly buried by the hard-liners’ efforts to leverage the tense relations with the Trump White House in order to discredit Rouhani and his allies in the reformist camp. Indeed, the election in June 2020 of a new Majlis dominated by hard-line “principlists” opened the door to incessant political bloodletting between the president and his adversaries. Hard-liners called for Rouhani’s impeachment, first in July 2020 and then in October of that year, when one MP declared that “The supreme leader should issue a ruling on hanging you a thousand times.” A spokesman for Rouhani pushed back, calling for prosecution of several MPs because, he noted, it is a “public crime” to insult (much less threaten) the president. Not surprisingly, Rouhani got little help from the judiciary, whose spokesman suggested that his only recourse was to file a personal lawsuit against his accusers.

While sparked by deteriorating economic conditions and periodic public protests, the hard-liners have focused on the contentious issue of negotiations with the United States over the JCPOA. In October 2020, with US presidential elections on the near horizon, Rouhani tried to outmaneuver his rivals by invoking the example of Hassan, the son of the revered Imam Ali and second Shia imam, who, he asserted, had made “peace with the enemy” based on the “will of the majority.” That act, he implied, provided religious justification for holding a referendum to see if most Iranians back talks with the United States. Rouhani’s words provoked a firestorm in the hard-line press, one of whose leading lights accused him of “treachery”—an allegation flung in tandem with the Majlis’s impeachment efforts and the calls for hanging the president.

Rouhani’s struggle to deflect the hard-liners’ ire has met with little success. The major obstacle he faces is simply this: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran will not return to compliance—or cease its deliberate efforts to move far beyond the enrichment limits set by the JCPOA—unless the United States removes all nuclear-related sanctions. No Iranian official dares to cross this red line, not only because doing so would provoke hard-line retaliation but also because regardless of their political or ideological differences, most Iranian leaders feel compelled to embrace this position as a matter of national honor.

No Iranian official dares to cross Khamenei’s red line, not only because doing so would provoke hard-line retaliation but also because regardless of their political or ideological differences, most Iranian leaders feel compelled to embrace this position as a matter of national honor.

Faced by this imposing constraint, Rouhani’s reformist allies have seized upon other foreign policy issues to embarrass hard-liners. For example, in August 2020 Ali Motahari—a prominent former MP who a year earlier had spearheaded proposals to amend the constitution—accused hard-liners and the clerical establishment of turning a blind eye to the fate of China’s Muslim Uighur minority. Noting that “Chinese Muslims are no different from Yemeni or Palestinian Muslims,” he lambasted the hard-liners for falling “into China’s lap,” thus pointing to the hypocrisy of an “Islamic” government presumably pledged to defending the interests of all Muslims.

For his part, Rouhani has tried to push back by portraying the efforts of hard-liners as a violation of his constitutional authority. Thus, after the Majlis passed an “action law” in December 2020 (a bill that required suspending International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] inspections of its nuclear facilities unless sanctions were lifted by February 23), Rouhani did not question Iran’s right to take this dramatic step. Instead, he argued that the Majlis could not pass a law that trampled upon his authority—and that of the foreign ministry—to set the terms of Iran’s diplomacy. While these words did not deter his rivals, Rouhani tried to do an end run around the hard-liners by backing a compromise with the IAEA that allows for a three-month suspension of Iran’s voluntary compliance with the “Additional Protocols” (which require unscheduled inspections).

Thus far, as one prescient observer of Iranian politics has noted, the hard-liners have not rejected the deal with the IAEA. Neither do they have to, as they clearly already have the upper hand. In the face of this imposing reality, Rouhani defended the deal by once again assailing the Majlis’s “action law,” by insisting on his constitutional authority to set foreign policy, and by warning his adversaries that “If anyone wants to violate the agreement between the Iranian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency, this is undoubtedly a game on our enemy’s court, and it is clear that the goals of others are being implemented there.”

But this clever warning has apparently only emboldened Rouhani’s rivals to portray Tehran’s refusal to back down as an Iranian victory. “Today,” as the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recently put it, “we set conditions for the enemy. Of course, whenever we were restricted by their (enemy’s) conditions, we lost. But when we set conditions for the enemy, we won.” Apart from signaling the hard-liners’ soaring confidence, this assertion underscores Tehran’s perception that it, rather than Washington, has the upper hand.

Hard-liners Prepare for the June 18 Presidential Elections

Boosted by their perceived strength, the hard-liners are now preparing for the June 18 presidential elections. Based on previous experience, their main objective will probably be to coalesce around one candidate rather than divide their ranks in ways that—however unlikely—might create an opening for a reformist candidate, or for a more pragmatic “old school conservative” such as former Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. Tellingly, the names currently being floated as possible candidates are all hard-liners who have held commanding positions in the security apparatus. They include Majlis Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Saeed Mohammad (who recently resigned from his position as commander of the IRGC’s construction conglomerate known as Khatam al-Anbiya), former IRGC commander and ex-Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The names currently being floated as possible candidates are all hard-liners who have held commanding positions in the security apparatus.

Of these four men, only Mohammed and Dehghan have signaled their intention to run, but others may enter the fray. Ghalibaf—whom many hard-liners do not consider ideologically pure and, who in any case, was accused of corruption when he was mayor of Tehran—might not take the plunge. For his part, Ahmadinejad, who was barred by the Guardian Council from running in the previous presidential election, is once again running into resistance from hard-liners. The latter apparently worry that Ahmadinejad’s populist appeal—not to mention the tensions that emerged between him and the Supreme Leader during his last years as president and thereafter—could galvanize support at Khamenei’s expense, a prospect that for hard-liners—and Khamenei himself—is  unacceptable.

While these leaders all have ties to, or have held prominent positions in, the security apparatus, there are significant personal and ideological differences among them that echo wider fissures in the hard-line camp. What really unifies these men is their abiding suspicions of the reformists, but even that sentiment may not be sufficient to produce a consensus candidate. As for the reformists, they are divided and facing the very real prospect that the Guardian Council will veto any candidate who might have a viable chance, particularly if there are multiple hard-line candidates.

Given the high stakes in this next election, the odds are that Khamenei will push for a candidate on whom he can depend to vigorously defend Iran’s position of no compromise with the United States on the terms of renewing the JCPOA. In recent weeks, Khamenei has been pushing Iran’s leaders to close ranks. With the COVID-19 crisis still in full swing and the economic situation fragile, he appears worried that there will be a record low turnout in the coming election, an outcome that would only accentuate the regime’s isolation. For this reason, Khamenei might favor a more veteran conservative such as Ali Larijani rather than a less politically experienced leader from the military or IRGC. Less—rather than more—change is probably his best option.

Biden Must Show Leadership

The good news for Khamenei and his allies is that on the basic question of the JCPOA, Iran’s leaders remain unified. Indeed, Rouhani has increasingly echoed the hard-liners’ language of defiance and resistance. At this point, any public signal from him or Zarif that they might consider some kind of compromise would be foolish. This leaves the Biden Administration in a difficult spot. Waiting to make any real progress on talks until Iran’s presidential elections play out could strengthen the opponents of JCPOA talks in the region and at home. But the inconvenient truth is that the White House has very little leverage to compel Iran to budge on its basic stance.

Still, the one compelling reason for Iran and the United States to find a way forward is that absent a deal, Tehran and Washington could be on the road to a collision that they both want to avoid. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent assertion that “diplomacy with Iran is ongoing, just not in a direct fashion” is surely not happy talk. Indeed, as he indicated, the White House is looking to the Europeans to make the case to Iran for a “compliance for compliance” deal that would allow both sides to save face. But the devil is in the details. Ultimately, a credible argument could be made that Biden has much more to gain than to lose by mustering the political will to accept steps that give Rouhani and Zarif a reasonable fig leaf—even if doing so elicits opposition in the Middle East and at home. That, after all, is what presidential leadership is all about.

Photo credit: Tasnim News Agency