Analysis

Iran’s Missile Program Becomes New Focus of Dissent — From Within

Tehran’s recent ballistic tests have replaced its nuclear program as the newest battleground between reformists and hardliners.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei poses before a speech marking the Iranian New Year, in this handout photo released by the Iranian Supreme Leader website on March 20, 2016.
Reuters

Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini is a name we should get to know. He is being mentioned in the Iranian political world as the possible next chairman of Iran’s Council of Experts, the body authorized to appoint a successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If there is something preoccupying Iranian domestic politics at this time, it is the Council of Experts. In this 88-man assembly the “moderates” won a majority in February’s elections; two of its radical members, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi, among the most vocal critics of President Hassan Rohani, failed to get re-elected.

In May the council will convene to select a new chairman, and the burning question is whether Amini, considered a moderate, will agree to take the position. The problem is that this senior cleric is 91 years old, 15 years older than Khamenei, who is ill, and it is not clear whether he will want to run for the position, which has such a major impact on who will succeed Khamenei after he dies. If he declines the position, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani may very well take it. If that happens, Iran can expect a significant turnaround in its politics. That is because Rafsanjani not only backed the nuclear agreement and is considered a supporter of President Rohani, he also urges dialogue with the West, including the United States. But Rafsanjani is a controversial figure and was recently quoted on Twitter as saying “the world of tomorrow is a world of dialogue not of missiles.” That statement, coming precisely at a time when Iran is demonstrating its ballistic capabilities, angered Khamenei, who retorted: “He who claims that Iran’s future is in dialogue and not in missiles is mistaken. He is either stupid or a traitor.” Rafsanjani took down the tweet, but did not retract the statement.

Iran’s missile program and its recent ballistic tests has become a source of concern to the West, following the nuclear agreement signed in July. Domestically in Iran it seems to have replaced the nuclear program as a source of dissent between the reformist powers seeking to strengthen the economy, and the conservative hardliners, including Khamenei, who believe Iran must demonstrate military prowess in the face of regional threats, but primarily against the United States.

For example, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Ali Jafari, said at the annual meeting of that body’s top commanders that “Those who now promulgate this agreement, especially at home, are diverging, perhaps unintentionally, from the true path of the revolution.”

Iranian Defense Minister Hussein Dehghan last week invented the term “strategic flexibility” to explain the way Iran is conducting itself after the nuclear accord. “Strategic flexibility... gives a balance between taking advantage of opportunities and the required response to threats.”

These two statements show that the conservatives have come to terms with the new reality but they intend to continue to obstruct the aspirations of Rohani and his camp to make the nuclear agreement a leverage for change in Iran’s foreign policy, and in particular they intend to stop the rapprochement with the United States.

Their response stems not only from ideology. After the elections to parliament and Council of Experts, in which the reformists won considerable gains, the conservatives are preparing for the presidential elections of June 2017, in which Rohani will run for a second term. They are also concerned that Khamenei will succumb to cancer by then and if a supreme leader is elected who tends toward the moderates, this will be a harsh blow to the conservatives and the radicals.

Thus, when Jafari says “our military preparations are directed against military actions that could harm us, and not for political or diplomatic goals, and our missiles will be more accurate and more powerful,” his words are directed not only at the United States or the Gulf States “who have become vassals of the United States.” He is signaling to Rohani that the latter had better forget about “strategic dialogue.”

Rohani would like to implement his economic programs, but has been stymied by American sanctions in place because of what Obama has called a “breach of the spirit of the agreement.” By that he means that the missiles Iran tested can carry nuclear warheads.

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry believes that Iran should now be allowed to work with the American banking system, conservatives in Congress are making sure the administration makes no more concessions to Iran. From Iran’s perspective this is a breach of the agreement and a sign that the United States is not serious. It also shoots Rohani in the foot, because while the Revolutionary Guards can continue to arm almost without restrictions, Iran’s economic rehabilitation is stuck. From here the road is short to Rohani losing the elections.

Obama and Kerry are not blind to the danger this represents, and have held a series of briefings by the U.S. Treasury for American corporations and businesspeople on how to navigate the maze of sanctions binding Obama.

The political struggles within Iran and its sharp dialogue with the United States meanwhile have no effect on Tehran’s involvement in the various Middle Eastern arenas. After most of its troops had left, Iran recently announced it was sending advisers to Syria, apparently in light of the Russians’ departure. Iran is also continuing its involvement in Yemen and funding Shi’ite militias in Iraq. And yet, Iran no longer garners the headlines it once did in the Arab media, except for Saudi Arabia, and its status as a regional threat is diminishing.