Analysis |

Iran’s ‘Republicans’ at Home

Like the Americans, the Iranians at the nuclear negotiations have their own domestic hardliners to worry about - mainly the Revolutionary Guard.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian Revolutionary Guard members celebrate after launching a missile during a maneuver, July 3, 2012.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard members celebrate after launching a missile during a maneuver, July 3, 2012.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“There’s one advantage to dragging out the talks between Iran and the world powers. As long as the diplomats are sitting at the hotel in Lausanne, the centrifuges aren’t producing enriched uranium,” an Iranian journalist told Haaretz by email. “But as long as the talks go on, my bill at the supermarket gets larger and larger. Rice costs two dollars a kilo, cola is 50 cents a bottle, and I’m paying over $50 a month for water and electricity,” continued the journalist. Lucky for him, he owns his own home and doesn’t pay rent, which in the nicer parts of Tehran can be over $1500 a month.

According to estimations from financial organizations in Iran, last year alone the cost of living jumped 30 percent and inflation is sitting at 17 percent. “There’s no reason to drag these talks on. We feel that the differences between the regime and the world powers is no longer about the number of centrifuges or the amount of enriched uranium, but about prestige. We don’t use uranium to buy groceries,” wrote the journalist.

Two days ago Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif angrily said, “The Americans have to make a political decision,” and that “Iran has already made all the necessary political concessions, and now it’s the other side’s turn.” His tone of voice reflected the amount of pressure he feels coming from rivals awaiting his return to Tehran. Paradoxically, Zarif’s situation is the same as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s. Both of them have vicious battles with Congress and Majlis, respectively, hanging over their head. In Washington, Congress is likely to throw open the rodeo gates and allow the bull of sanctions to run wild, while in Tehran, the Revolutionary Guard and the radical clerics are ready to tar and feather President Hassan Rohani.

Kerry and Zarif are both trying for a deal that will stand up to both the legislature at home and the rival across the table. While Kerry and Obama face the Republicans, Rohani faces the Revolutionary Guard. Ten months ago, Rohani labeled the Guard, without invoking their name, “our smuggling brothers,” and the “corrupt heroes.” After he made other disparaging remarks, Mohammad Pakpour, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in the Guard, said, “Some people take their orders from foreign elements.” As criticism ramped up against Rohani, he lost his patience and told his rivals, “You can go to hell. You’ll find it nice and warm there. Allah made you as cowards.”

Hiding behind this criticism of Rohani on the nuclear talks is also criticism of Khamenei, who thus far has given his backing to the negotiating team. Here also lies the trap Khamenei set for himself in deciding to engage in direct talks with the United States, gambling on being able to present a victory that will preserve his legitimacy with the radical Islamic factions, while risking a rift with the Revolutionary Guard that keeps him in power. Thus Khamenei has to do a difficult balancing act between the Guard’s interests and what he’s called “Iran’s interests,” meaning the preservation of his government, which a nuclear agreement should guarantee.

Another paradox lies in the fact that the Revolutionary Guard is also interested in removing the sanctions against Iran, as the sanctions are making the many public works projects for which the Guard is responsible less economically viable. At the same time, the Guard made much of its fortune during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when they were able to circumvent the sanctions, sell oil and pocket the profits.

Removing the sanctions would open up commerce. Earnings and profits would become public and thus subject to government regulations. Importing could be done by private enterprises with no ties to the Guard, all while the country is led by Rohani, the Guard’s political rival who sees them as an obstacle to economic development.

Why Iran needs sanctions lifted ASAP

This is why Iran is so concerned with the timetable for removing the sanctions. A final status agreement is supposed to be signed by the end of June, seven months before parliamentary elections and a year before presidential elections. If all goes according to plan, Rohani will have months before the parliamentary elections to prove that his efforts worked. In that case, his supporters are likely to win in parliament. Although Iranian legislators can be disqualified by higher councils, the nuclear deal and an improvement in Iran’s economy will most definitely benefit the reformist movements.

While Rohani is expecting to make political gains from an agreement, the Revolutionary Guard is working to bolster their position militarily throughout the Arab world. Most interesting is that the Revolutionary Guard’s war against ISIS turns it in a roundabout way into an ally of the United States and the Arab coalition, the same coalition it condemns for fighting the Houthis in Yemen. Despite the contradictions amidst their military involvement in the Arab world, the Guard is preserving Iran’s status as the only major power in the area that can solve these conflicts in a way that the United States and the West won’t be able to ignore.

Thus, even if it signs a nuclear agreement, Iran will not be taken off the daily agenda in the region, but to hold onto that status, it will need new sources of funding. The unlimited credit it is extending to Syria, funding for the Houthis in Yemen and its upkeep of Hezbollah, as well as investments in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are draining the nation’s already-dwindling coffers.

Removing the sanctions is expected not only to rehabilitate the Iranian economy, but also to give the regime the financial strength it needs to compete with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in the various regional conflicts. This is why a speedy agreement is in Iran’s best interest, and perhaps what lies behind recent French statements that only a “few meters” are left before an agreement is reached.

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