Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei scored big laughs last month when he venomously mocked President Hassan Rohani at a major conference in Tehran. “The president spoke at length about the economic situation and the fact that this and that need to be done differently,” Khamenei said. But then, to laughter from the audience, including the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, Khamenei asked: “Who is he directing his comments to? He should direct them to himself.”
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Khamenei didn’t stop there. He referenced Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was the first president of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini, saying Iran already had a president who divided the country into two camps. Bani-Sadr served as president for just a short period and fled to Paris after he was dismissed in 1981. The hint was clear to everyone: If Rohani doesn’t toe the conservative leadership’s line, a similar fate might await him.
Anyone unconvinced by the comparison could find additional proof in the demonstrations in Iran to mark Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in which demonstrators chanted “Rohani is Bani-Sadr.” At one public conference, Rohani’s security guards had to whisk him to his car for fear the crowd would attack him.
Rohani didn’t remain silent, though, declaring that “the legitimacy of the supreme leader is decided by the public and at its invitation,” meaning that Khamenei was not chosen by God. The president was taking aim directly at the belief of the country’s religious elite that the greatness of the supreme leader rests on divine power.
This rivalry didn’t start yesterday. The stinging failure of the conservative candidate for president, Ebrahim Raisi, contrasted with Rohani’s sweeping electoral victory, with 57 percent of the vote. This forced the conservative circles to do some soul-searching and particularly to launch a political broadside against the president who had delivered what he had promised – signing a nuclear agreement with the major powers. Rohani is now busy signing trade agreements with the Western powers.
It appears, though, that Iran is maintaining its tradition of turning presidents in their second term into targets – to pave the way for the next president, as was the case, for example, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had major run-ins with Khamenei between 2009 and 2013.
The criticism of Rohani doesn’t relate to his ideological outlook or the extent of his piety. The two major allegations his rivals make concern corruption in his administration and his policy of increasingly involving Iran in the world. The latter policy makes him suspect as someone seeking to get closer to the West, particularly the United States, and to allow Western ideas and culture to infiltrate the country and undermine the regime through the abomination of Western democracy.
“Wasn’t ISIS born between 2013 and 2015, the years during which the nuclear negotiations with the United States were held?” wondered an editorial last month in the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by the supreme leader. It’s a familiar argument, and not only in Iran, which holds that the United States and Israel were behind the establishment of the Islamic State group as a means of interfering in the Middle East.
But in the case of the editorial, it is aimed directly at Rohani, who is said to have fallen into the American trap in the nuclear negotiations.
The mention of ISIS is not happenstance, since the Islamist group carried out a major terrorist attack in Tehran last month that killed at least 12 people.
There is an Iranian-American paradox at play here, which holds that Iran – a country that could have been a natural partner in the war against the Islamic State – is considered an enemy whose influence in the Middle East not only has to be halted but whose regime should be replaced, as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted.
Among the issues fueling the infighting in Iran, Tehran’s involvement in Syria is a burning issue challenged by reformers who are close to Rohani. And the military elite can’t ignore public anger, not only over the huge financial investment Iran has made in Syria, but also over the Iranian soldiers who have been killed in action there.
But the conservatives in Iran accuse the reformists – who have opposed continued Iranian financial and military assistance to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad – of conspiring with the United States and, perhaps even worse, with Tehran’s bitter rival, Saudi Arabia, to put a halt to Iranian influence in the Middle East.
What Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are truly concerned about is actually the policy of Russia, which they see as forging an unwritten alliance with Israel to head off the presence of pro-Iranian forces in southern Syria.
While Israel can feel relatively confident under an American-Russian umbrella that opposes the deployment of Iranian or pro-Iranian militias in southern Syria, Iran has good reason for concern – not only over being excluded from involvement in security of the region, but also over the prospect of being thwarted by the Americans and Russians in its desire to create a land corridor between Iran and Lebanon via Syria and Iraq.
Although the Americans and Russians have been at loggerheads and despite the American airstrikes on militias close to the Assad regime, both have an interest in limiting Iranian influence in Syria and more generally in the Middle East.
On the ground, that could be reflected in massive American military involvement in the southern border region between Iraq and Syria, while in the north the superpowers will have help from Kurdish forces and the Turkish army, which is already present in Syrian territory bordering Turkey.
Nevertheless, the U.S. administration has still not decided if and how to pursue its war in Syria. There are disagreements in Washington between officials who support immediate military action and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is concerned about a descent into a wider war in Syria involving the United States, Russia and Iran. The stance of Tillerson, who wishes to encourage factions in Iran to replace the current regime there, is not yet clear. And as is his wont, Trump has yet to decide.
But even before these decisions are made, new strategic developments allow Israel to enjoy for the patronage, or at least the consideration, of two world powers. The U.S., whose president promised in his campaign to limit the country's involvement in global affairs, is increasingly invading war zones in the region. Russia has directly taken over, both politically and militarily, an Arab state over which it has no historic claim. Meanwhile, Iran has become a recognized, albeit hostile, partner in regional moves, helping the war on ISIS in Iraq and pushing Saudi Arabia and other Arab states away from their traditional roles. And who could have imagined that all of these tectonic shifts over Syria would have begun with a few lines of graffiti scrawled on a wall in the Syrian city of Daraa six long years ago.