The view from the ground.

Rouhani’s Moment of Truth

Iran’s president may have popular support, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has guns – and missiles. Whoever wins their fight will shape the country for years to come.


TEHRAN – Ever since he defied Iran's deep state in last month's elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations.

TEHRAN – Ever since he defied Iran’s deep state in last month’s elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations.

The moment came on the morning of March 8, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired several ballistic missiles in a military drill, displaying wanton disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions. The missile tests confirmed two things: First, Iran’s president, despite his proven ability to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage and win over public opinion, cannot curb the activities of the country’s most powerful military force. And second, there are organs of Iran’s revolutionary state that will do whatever they can to sabotage Rouhani’s nascent rapprochement with the West.

During the Feb. 26 election, Iranians opted for the optimistic message of mutual respect, outreach, and global trade offered by Rouhani and his reformist allies. They rejected the overly rehearsed, downbeat talk of American infiltration that is the mainstay of hard-line conservatives. Most crucially of all, however, the elections showed that the political war unfolding in Iran goes beyond parliament and other contested political institutions. The struggle now involves the very highest authority in the land.

The elections were not kind to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had issued dire warnings about American attempts to influence the outcome. (Among Friday prayer leaders, all of whom follow sermon instructions that come from Khamenei’s office, one ayatollah even urged worshippers to elect MPs who have “Death to America” written on their foreheads.) It’s not just that the public voted out two of Khamenei’s top counselors from the Assembly of Experts, the body nominally charged with supervising the leader’s work. They also voted for reformists, a political movement whose leaders Khamenei has accused of seditious attempts to topple the regime during street protests in 2009. After years in isolation, the group has formed a coalition with so-called moderate conservatives sympathetic to Rouhani, boosting the president’s heft.

After the election, the IRGC, which reports only to Khamenei, decided to strike back. By reportedly writing “Israel Must Be Wiped Out” on two missiles used in a second day of tests on March 9, they moved to show that Iran’s regional security policies, controlled by the supreme leader, are not going to change.

“The IRGC is in effect saying: ‘You can have your parliament, and that’s it’,” a Western diplomat in Tehran said of the missile tests. Having conducted similar drills after the nuclear deal was struck last July, missile launches seem one of the few tools the IRGC have left.

Rouhani has yet to comment on the latest tests. When the United States first threatened sanctions in December over Iran’s ballistic missile program, he wrote to his defense minister urging him to intensify the program — a step seen as necessary to show he was not being bullied by the United States.

Far from ending Rouhani’s momentum following the election, this week’s projection of force by the IRGC has only highlighted the Islamic Republic’s precarious method of balancing the interests of rival factions. Iran’s president was unequivocal on the need for compromise when speaking on March 1, after it had become clear that reformists and moderates had gained almost as many parliamentary seats as their main opponents had lost.

“I hope we all learn a lesson. The era of confrontation is over. If there are some who think that the country must be in confrontation with others, they still haven’t got the message of 2013,” Rouhani said.

The IRGC, clearly, are among those who haven’t got the message.

Since his inauguration in August 2013, Iran’s president has been a standard-bearer for his country’s most outward-looking citizens. He withstood withering attacks during the tortuous negotiations in securing the nuclear deal. Rouhani has had a bright start compared with the tenure of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose years in power are remembered by Iranians for being politically divisive and economically disastrous,. The 67-year-old Rouhani, after completing the “second step” of his administration by securing a parliament likely to work with the government rather than agitate against it, is now on course for the “third-step” — re-election in June 2017.

Rouhani’s aim is to give Iranians greater access to the jobs and economic opportunities they say they want. His gradual approach of securing the nuclear deal and eliminating its opponents from parliament will now be followed by a push on the economy. Privatization of state industries, starting with car production, a major industry in Iran before sanctions, is likely the next item on his agenda.

Broader political and economic reform will be impossible so long as Khamenei stands in the way. But Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014, is reportedly ailing — and there’s a good chance his successor will be sympathetic to Rouhani’s broader agenda. The president’s allies were victorious in the recent election for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for replacing the supreme leader in the event of his death.

The elections have put Rouhani in a position to ensure that the agreement isn’t simply a one-off engagement with the West. It’s a development that lends fresh credence to President Barack Obama’s argument that Iranian politics could change markedly during the landmark nuclear deal’s 10-year duration. In that sense, the IRGC’s missile tests – they conducted similar launches after the agreement on the nuclear deal – appear more a confirmation of that group’s unease rather than an expression of its confidence. The force’s raison d’etre is to defend the revolution at all costs.

But 37 years since its foundation, voters showed that a cause does not make a country. Iran’s people are tired of conflict, and they want prosperity. A group of independents may ultimately hold the balance of power in Iran’s parliament – a coalition of conservatives, many of whom supported the nuclear deal, won 103 seats in the 290-member legislature, to the reformist List of Hope’s 95. (It will be a while yet before the complete makeup of the new parliament comes into view: Under Iran’s system, lawmakers must win 25 percent of the popular vote to be elected; in the 69 constituencies where that did not happen, run-off elections are scheduled for April.)

But the parliamentary faction most sympathetic to the IRGC’s views is weaker than ever, having lost about 90 seats compared with the previous election. Perhaps its best chance of maintaining influence will be if Ali Larijani, an independent conservative from the holy city of Qom, maintains his post as speaker of parliament. As a former commander in the IRGC who has held key posts across the Islamic Republic’s vast superstructure – he can boast of impeccable regime credentials. He won an endorsement on the eve of last month’s election from the country’s best-known military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s Quds Force, the branch dedicated to foreign operations.

Larijani may face a challenge from Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami who headed the reformist list in the elections. Although it would be a prestigious appointment for Aref, Larijani showed during debates over the nuclear deal that he can build bridges across different factions. Aref, and his mostly unknown new MPs, cannot say that.

“Larijani has a far better relationship with the conservatives and is likely to be more successful at lobbying them to support Rouhani’s economic agenda than Aref would be,” a veteran Iran analyst said.

At the same time, Larijani could emerge as Rouhani’s most dangerous rival.

“I expect the new parliament to be under the control of moderates, and if Larijani manages them correctly, he can appear supportive of the government and the people, and he may become the new face the conservatives need for 2017,” said a friend of Larijani, referring to the next presidential election.

Though that vote is some time away, there is no breathing space for Rouhani. The president is acutely aware that Iranians have seen dreams of change dashed before, during the presidency of Khatami from 1997 to 2005. By 2000, Khatami had prematurely become a lame duck – hemmed in by the IRGC, which implicitly threatened a coup the previous year, when student protests shook the system. The Guardian Council also stopped Khatami’s reforms in their tracks, using its power to veto legislation even after it had been passed by MPs.

Ultimately though, last month’s election showed that the establishment’s efforts to marginalize reformists have their own limitations. About 11 years after he left office, Khatami – who is banned from being quoted in newspapers or having his picture published — used social media to urge voters to back the pro-Rouhani List of Hope, showing he cannot be silenced. His YouTube video, released five days before polling day, was seen by many as the turning point that persuaded doubters to cast a ballot.

Rouhani returned the favor following the election, referring to Khatami as “my dear brother” in public remarks carried live by state television, in seeming defiance of the official ban on mentioning the former president. A day later, the IRGC announced its missile tests.

As the IRGC’s latest provocation shows, the president will have his work cut out in delivering the change Iranians want. One of his top rivals will be the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani — a hard-liner who years ago opposed Khatami’s reforms and issued the strongest attack on the pro-Rouhani ticket after the election results were published, accusing its leaders of colluding with foreign media to persuade the public to vote ultraconservatives off the Assembly of Experts.

Larijani, who was re-elected to the key body in the recent vote, has also been named among the contenders to replace Khamenei. As the man who heads a legal system that executes hundreds of people annually and locks up many others deemed opponents of the Islamic Republic, the judiciary chief represents a very different face of Iran.

There is good reason, however, to think that Rouhani will be more adept at countering his rivals than Khatami ever was. Unlike the former reformist president, the incumbent has held some of the most senior security posts in the Islamic Republic. His recent election victory, on the heels of the nuclear deal, helps him prove that he is not a one-trick pony, but a canny operator whose deeper links within the elite can yield results. It won’t be easy to change how the Islamic Republic operates, but Rouhani is better positioned than any of his predecessors to give it a shot.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.