Iran’s Elites Are Far More Fragile Than They Look

An Islamic Republic divided against itself cannot stand.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in a suburb of Tehran on June 3, 2014. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in a suburb of Tehran on June 3, 2014. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The wave of recent protests throughout Iran is the latest sign of Tehran’s crisis of leadership. It is a crisis that has indicted all echelons of the state and all the factions that compete for power within it.

For over a week, Iranian protesters, chanting slogans against figures including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani, have managed to lay bare the divisions among the Islamic Republic’s elites — the reformist, pragmatist, and hard-liner factions that have held together since 1979. The protests also highlighted how all those groups now lay on one side of a deepening divide between the Iranian state and society.

This crisis is not unique to Iran. The Arab Spring protests, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the 2016 Brexit referendum are but a few examples that reflect the global trend of popular protest against status quo politics and an ever-distant political elite. Over the past two decades, Iranians have similarly expressed their growing discontent with the political status quo at the ballot box and in demonstrations. Factional tensions and political competition also accelerated during this time, becoming a defining feature of Iran’s politics. Different factions thus became the object of popular disproval at different times — neither the centrist and reformist group that controls the elected government nor the hard-line conservatives who dominate the Islamic Republic’s unelected centers of power were spared.

The 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, which brought reformists into government, foreshadowed an accelerating shift toward factionalism among the Islamic Republic’s political elites. Seeking political, cultural, and economic liberalization of the Islamic government, reformists introduced the idea of change from within, at the expense of conservative elites. Their efforts, despite broad electoral support, were predominantly unsuccessful due to coordinated conservative maneuvering against reform.

The 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought with it a populist wind of change. As a younger-generation revolutionary, Ahmadinejad sought to redress the imbalances of a revolution gone astray. His redistributive policies and confrontational politics upset the domestic balance of power — seen most clearly in the 2009 post-election protests and subsequent government crackdown, which also featured severe criticism of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

The 2013 election of centrist Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of pragmatic economic and social reforms, was meant to return balance to the system. There were hopes from within the elite that Rouhani, a quintessential insider, would be able to build bridges between the right and left wings of the political elite while also restoring the Islamic Republic’s lost popular legitimacy. For the duration of the nuclear negotiations with the United States and other world powers, factional tensions were relatively tempered at Khamenei’s behest to present a united front.

Once the agreement was sealed in July 2015, however, these divisions aggressively resurfaced as hard-liners sought to discredit Rouhani and his proposed reforms. Like his immediate predecessors, Rouhani rose with the promise of change and is now in the process of falling, because he failed to bridge the very divide of factionalism he used to fuel his rise. He is falling victims to the same cycle of electoral change, unmet policy promises, disappointment, and popular unrest that has defined Iran’s crisis of leadership for the past 20 years.

Hard-liners and reformists are at odds over not only their place in the political system but also its future. In theory, all factions are united in protecting and preserving the Islamic Republic’s political system — even if they are divided on how to do so. But pragmatists and reformists’ support for economic liberalization policies promises to create a more open private sector that hard-liners believe will erode the values of the revolution, and their place in it. Rouhani’s attempts to elevate issues of corruption and challenge the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) business interests also represents a threat to the hard-liners’ economic interests.

It is against this backdrop that the recent protests began in the religious city of Mashhad and spread to over 70 cities, towns, and villages throughout the country. Some reports have suggested that conservative politicians in Mashhad close to Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line candidate who was defeated in the 2017 presidential election, organized the initial protests to challenge Rouhani’s economic policies. From there, the demonstrations spiraled out of control.

Rouhani’s recently unveiled budget has drawn much public attention for cutting back spending and criticizing institutionalized corruption. In order to attract foreign investment, Rouhani proposed to cut domestic spending on subsidies and increase fuel prices — moves that could have sparked further discontent. The ever-frustrated Rouhani also drew attention to the large percentage of government funds that were allocated to religious and cultural institutions without any oversight, going so far as to name these organizations, as well as highlighting the $8 billion allocated to the IRGC.

Ahmadinejad’s role in fanning the flames of popular discontent is also relevant. Whether he too was involved is not yet known, although IRGC officials have implied as much. Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the IRGC, intimated that “This [protest] … is linked to an individual who has opened his mouth in opposition to the values and principles of the system … Security officials are investigating this matter, to see if they see interference by this former official, certainly he will be confronted by law enforcement.” Since the end of his presidential tenure, Ahmadinejad continues to be a thorn in the side of the regime, which has made every effort to marginalize him.

The Iranian leadership’s response to the protests has been tepid at best and reflects the deep political tensions and competition at the top of the government. President Rouhani has spoken twice since the protests, using the opportunity to set himself apart from his factional opponents. He acknowledged the root cause of the unrest being “distance from the younger generation” and called for regular access to the internet, government transparency, and the release of detained students. These are the same reforms that Rouhani has been calling for since 2013. It remains to be seen if he has the necessary political strength and courage to demand further change from his hard-line opponents. If he does not, he will ride out his remaining term as a lame duck president.

But it’s important to note that reformists have also struggled to form a coherent response. As partners of the Rouhani government with many seats in parliament, they are in an awkward position of supporting the government and the rights of the protesters at the same time.

Meanwhile, Khamenei’s comments have been limited to his usual game of blaming outsiders for their interference. The supreme leader continues to hold fast to a decaying vision of the Islamic Republic that has no meaning or value to many of the country’s citizens; the blame for failing to keep the system in balance ultimately falls on his shoulders. If there’s anyone who has been forthright about supporting the right of protests, and effective in acknowledging the public’s frustrations, it has been Friday prayer leaders who are ideologically close to the supreme leader and looking to promote their own hard-line populist ties to the people.

If anything, the divergent response to the protests reveals the mirage of political unity within the Islamic Republic. Despite claims of collective support for the Islamic Republic, Iran’s factions are more vested in preserving their personal power and place in the system than in governing effectively.

In 1858, at the Illinois Republican convention, then-senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln famously said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The same can be said of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without significant reconciliation among the elite and Iranian society at large, the Iranian government faces a perilous and volatile path ahead.

Sanam Vakil is Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe and Associate Fellow at Chatham House's Middle East North Africa Programme.

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