The Middle East Channel

Iran’s pragmatic turn

Iran is once again in the midst of a fierce internal battle to come out of its latest ideological shell. The showdown in Syria will demonstrate how pragmatic the Islamic Republic will become. It will also set the stage for the upcoming nuclear negotiations.   It was not that long ago that various Iranian figures ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Iran is once again in the midst of a fierce internal battle to come out of its latest ideological shell. The showdown in Syria will demonstrate how pragmatic the Islamic Republic will become. It will also set the stage for the upcoming nuclear negotiations.  

It was not that long ago that various Iranian figures claimed that fighting in Damascus would prevent fighting in Tehran. Now you hear these statements mostly from Syrian officials without any nod from their Iranian counterparts. Last February, a conservative cleric called Syria "Iran’s 35th province" and claimed that losing the secular, Alawite-ruled country would be strategically more devastating than losing the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Grim internal and regional realities, however, have undermined these hardline views. 

Syria has been Iran’s main, or rather only, ally since the 1979 Revolution. Syria’s ruling Baath party stood by Iran during the eight-year war against fellow-Baath leader Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who dreamed of swallowing Khuzestan and its sea of black gold. Unlike Turkey, which modernized its economy by maintaining good relations with both Iran and Iraq throughout the 1980s, Syria closed Iraq’s pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea. In return, Iran pumped free and cheap oil to Syria and sent thousands of pilgrims to Damascus every day.

Syria has been Iran’s crucial link to Hezbollah — a much-feared proxy that brought significant regional power to Iran. Hezbollah’s "victory" against Israel in 2006 was claimed as Iran’s victory and celebrated across the country. Without the Assad regime, the Islamic Republic may find itself in a neighborhood that it can no longer recognize, suddenly bereft of a tool, glasses, and even a compass that it has had since birth.

But an important change is taking place beneath the surface within the regime. The conservative faction, badly shaken by the 2009 Green Movement embarrassingly bruised by its own ally, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and then surprisingly defeated in the latest presidential election last June, is now forced to compromise and open the political space to the old pragmatic guard. Led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his protégé, current President Hassan Rowhani, and allied with former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, this is the faction that helped bring Iran out of a devastating war with Iraq and put it back on its feet. It also improved relations with the international community, stood aside to quietly benefit from the two Persian Gulf Wars against Saddam Hussein, and provided critical support to the United States to overthrow the Taliban. It is a faction that defines its interests in terms of better relations with the West, particularly the United States. It is a faction that is aware of and prepared to tap into the popular appetite to bring the country out of its current isolation.

On the other side of the equation is a powerful conservative block led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is deeply suspicious of the United States, and the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Threatened by the post-9/11 era, flushed with cash by the skyrocketing oil prices, and then drunk with "victory" over Israel and the United States after the two countries’ military adventures in the region, the conservatives pursued a resurgent hardline and ideological foreign policy from 2005 to 2013.

Khamenei has long argued that nothing but "resistance" to the United States would pay off. He references not just America’s enemies who eventually compromised (former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi) with Washington, but even those puppets (former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak/former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali) who only served the United States. They are all gone, he often points out. In a recent statement, he attributed the demise of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to his compromising position toward the West. Sticking to an anti-American ideology is not just about the ideology itself, but a practical key to survival. Khamenei argues Iran’s working relations with the United States in Afghanistan only made Tehran more vulnerable in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s "Axis of Evil" speech. By contrast, Iran’s confrontation with the United States in Iraq and over the nuclear issue only brought power and status to Iran and softened the Bush administration’s threatening posture.

But the Supreme Leader is increasingly challenged by a wide range of political groups that have publicly or quietly united behind Rafsanjani and Rowhani. They fear that Khamenei’s ideological worldview implemented during Ahmadinejad’s presidency has dangerously weakened the Islamic state. During Ahmadinejad’s first term, Iran lost the wedge that it had created between the United States and European Union over how to deal with Iran. During his second term, the West and the East (Russia and China) reached agreements on more effective sanctions against Iran. Eventually even the "Rising Powers" such as Brazil and Turkey lost interest in Iran. International sanctions that were called "worthless papers" might have empowered the IRGC, but have impaired the national economy and the middle class.

As the United States prepares to possibly strike the Assad regime in Syria with the partial aim of sending a message to Iran, Tehran’s pragmatics are struggling to navigate both internally and internationally. Rafsanjani went even further and reportedly criticized the Assad government for gassing its own people. Although he later denied such a statement, the audio version of his speech went viral on the internet. A country that had been a victim of chemical weapons during the war with Iraq under the watchful eyes of the United States may now be signaling that it in fact shares the same redline with the United States. If Assad has gassed his people, Iran could use that as an excuse not to sacrifice too much in the coming conflict. In the same speech Rafsanjani warned that the country is in a difficult situation: "We cannot utilize our natural resources. We cannot sell our oil. Even when we sell the oil, we cannot repatriate the money. When we buy goods, we have to pay extra and then also pay more for transportation. And many more problems." These statements are tarnishing the image of the Islamic Republic, and Khamenei has consistently warned Iranian officials against making them, not because they aren’t true, but because they indirectly question his judgment and leadership.

A few days later, Rafsanjani denied implicating Assad in the use of chemical weapons after conservatives warned him that his statements could be used by Western powers to make a case against Syria. However, Rafsanjani quickly moved on to admire Khomeini’s "intelligence" for "drinking the chalice of poison" to end the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the very moment he "discovered the people’s expediency." Rafsanjani, who has been accused of forcing Khomeini to end the war, stressed that Khomeini "chose" to do so because he cared about his people more than his reputation. By comparing the current situation to the difficult days of the war, he is pressing for a U-turn. Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Council, who was ironically and controversially disqualified in the last presidential race before putting his support behind Rowhani, said he would never doubt whether or not he should express what he calls the interest of the people. In other words, he won’t be bullied. He is determined to help reshape the Islamic state whose foundations owe as much to him, if not more, as to Khamenei. While both columns of the regime agree that the country is at a critical point, Rafsanjani fears that Khamenei’s "steadfast" approach means that although the road has evidently turned, the driver may not have.

Beneath this elite-level conflict, there is a restless society that could not care less about Syria unless it is a prelude for a war against Iran. It is the same constituency that has shown its unqualified dedication to bring about peaceful change in Iran through the 1997 Reform Movement, the 1999 Student Movement, and the 2009 Green Movement. It is the same constituency that voted for the pragmatic candidate it had (Rowhani) not the candidate it wished it had. This "pragmatic" candidate is the same man who boasts in his memoir that he is the one who enforced mandatory veiling in Iran’s Army after the 1979 Revolution, yet endears himself 30 years later by criticizing the humiliating treatment of women and youth. During his political campaign last spring Rowhani shrewdly touched on the mounting social and economic problems in these two often-quoted statements: "I am a lawyer not a colonel," and "It is good to have centrifuges running, provided that people’s lives and livelihoods are also running." Iran’s political elites across the board fully understand that despite the pretense of resuscitation in the past eight years, the grassroots revolutionary fervor of the 1980s is non-existent today.

By putting its most pragmatic elements in charge, Rafsanjani and Rowhani are hoping to once again reduce tensions with regional countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and possibly even Israel. Time and again Rafsanjani has expressed concern over the deterioration of relations with Saudi Arabia, accusing Ahmadinejad and others of putting their own factional interests above the state’s. Rafsanjani once reportedly said that one atomic bomb is enough to destroy the Jewish state, nowadays stresses that Iran is not on the forefront of the Arab-Israeli conflict: "We are not going to war with Israel. If Arabs fight, we will help." And in a clear departure from Ahmadinejad’s infamous statements against Israel, Rowhani was recently quick to correct the misstatements regarding "removing" Israel that had been attributed to him. Last week, in a Twitter exchange with Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also declared: "Iran never denied it [the Holocaust]. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year [Rosh Hashana]." The dismayed conservatives reacted immediately. On Sunday, Khamenei’s representative in the conservative paper Kayhan attacked Zarif for claiming that the Iranian government never denied the Holocaust and Zarif was pressed by some ultra-conservative elements to apologize. Tensions are at the highest levels.

It is said that at his deathbed, Ayatollah Khomeini opined his two disciples, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, that if they stayed united, the Islamic state would stay firm. It was that alliance that helped eradicate all non-Islamist activists after the revolution. Soon after his death, though, the conflict between them arose. Syria can be the latest test to see if they further diverge or come together and strike a balance between ideological goals and the practical interests of the regime.

In a recent interview with Iran’s state-controlled TV, Rowhani said he has been in touch with leaders of several countries and his foreign minister has spoken with his counterparts from 35 states to prevent a war. He emphasized that Iran would support "any initiative" to avoid a strike against Syria and pointed out that Tehran in principle agrees with the proposal for international control of Assad’s chemical arsenal. Moving to the nuclear issue, he said Iran’s approach for a "win-win solution" will begin during his upcoming trip to New York, where he will meet with foreign ministers of some of the P5+1 countries. He added that if the other side is serious, the "nuclear question will be resolved in a not very long period of time."

Both the United States and Islamic Republic view the situation in Syria as a means to signal to the other side. The Obama administration claims that its serious handling of Syria will send a message to Iran and its nuclear program. The Rowhani administration, on the other hand, intends to show its diplomatic handling of Syria will pave the way for a diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.

In the early days of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s young envoys, lost in the complex world of international politics, would often look to Syrian representatives before taking a position at international organizations. These now middle-aged diplomats sit and negotiate directly with representatives of big powers at one table. Syria is no longer their compass. The big question for Iran is whether Assad can be saved without becoming a liability.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is also a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

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