international analysis and commentary

Moderate gains, hardline losses: balancing Iran in the aftermath of the framework agreement

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The framework agreement, reached after protracted talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, is subject to vastly diverging assessments as to its objective and subjective implications. Its baseline, from a Western perspective, may be the creation of a monitoring regimen that interdicts the militarization of the Iranian nuclear program. From the Iranian point of view, it provides Tehran with the recognition it has demanded for the pursuit of a (civilian) nuclear program, while relaxing, and prospectively removing, sanctions and restrictions on its global economic and political relations. At the surface, the differences are thus of perspective and focus. The readings of the framework’s subtext, however, generate dramatically different narratives for multiple constituencies.

Some Western actors, even when muted in their optimism, may be hoping for a moderating effect for the already-established engagement with the international relations team of the Islamic Republic — one that would either percolate through Iran’s multi-layered leadership, or raise the “moderates” in importance and influence vis-à-vis the hardline rivals. The calculus, on the Iranian side, is far more intricate.

In its 35 years of existence, the Islamic Republic has proven the viability of its oligarchic model — with clerical, military, para-military, and bureaucratic wings reaching and maintaining a sustainable power-holding arrangement, and proving on occasions of “excess” (such as the 2009 post-election riots) that the equilibrium achieved is indeed stable, even if at the detriment of democratic demands. With this 2009 “green movement” challenge convincingly disposed of, the Iranian polity has restored amongst its constituent wings a threshold of trust in the primacy of the continuity of the oligarchic system, even if conflicting conceptions of the direction of its evolution persist between them. Moderates and hardliners in Iran solemnly agree on the need to restore the status of the country as a primary, if not the principal, regional actor in the strategic confluence of the Middle East, the Gulf, and Central Asia. They disagree, however, on whether this reinstatement is possible in coordination with other international stakeholders, or whether it would entail high levels of confrontation, notably with the United States.

The 2013 presidential election victory of Hassan Rouhani reflected the fundamental trust that governs the power-holding circles in Tehran. With the oversight of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a firewall against any exaggerated reform impulses, the moderate Rouhani was cast not as a threat, but rather as a potential asset in engaging the softer foes in the West, in the hope of loosening, if not removing, the economic stranglehold faced by the Islamic Republic. With the April 2nd framework now in place, Rouhani has delivered.

Rouhani and his reform-minded team have thus vindicated the choice of the voting public — as the most likely, among the vetted candidates offered for the elections by the oligarchy, to diffuse the international triggers of the economic crisis — and the tactical acquiescence of hardliners and conservatives to his diplomatic approach, placing Iran in a position more suitable for the pursuit of their strategic vision. Preserving the internal balance, however, leads all parties to expect that Rouhani and his moderate aides will have to endure some attenuation of their enhanced status in the next phase.

Regime dynamics may however cause this phenomenon to be more pronounced than some hoped. While the Rouhani team was able to reach a negotiations milestone, a parallel track championed by the hardliners, of a “kinetic” diplomacy in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, has produced less successful results. In its international operations, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have sought to implement a distinctly “imperial” approach — often boasting for local audiences of conquests and achievements, and appealing to well-developed nationalistic feelings with talk of advancing towards a “third Persian empire”. Yet, this imperial project has faltered gravely with the blitzkrieg launched in June 2014 by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the vassal government in Iraq, as well as by the inability of the Damascus regime to contain the Syrian uprising, even after the dispatch to its aid of Iran’s prime international strike force, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Away from the Levant theater of operations, in Yemen, an Iranian-supported coup provided some image relief for the hardline narrative of an ascending Iran. But the determination of Saudi Arabia to deny Iran a comfortable presence in the Arabian Peninsula seemed to out-maneuver the pro-active drive of Tehran agents.

The counter-offensive planned by the Iraqi government, aimed at recapturing territory lost to ISIS, seemed to provide Iran’s hardliner track with an opportunity. The battle of Tikrit against the ISIS contingent in the city — planned and executed with no coordination with the United States, but with explicit Iranian aid, a vastly disproportionate force of militias under its tutelage, and only nominal command of the Iraqi armed forces — was supposed to be a demonstration of Iran’s prowess and might. The presence of Ghassem Soleimani, IRGC Quds Force commander, in the battlefield was meant to lift any ambiguity as to the attribution of the putative victory. However, the attack was faced by unexpected prohibitive resistance and stalled. The eventual fall of Tikrit, weeks later, was achieved only with Baghdad’s open recourse to air support from the US-led coalition — effectively voiding the Iranian hardliners’ intended effect.

Counter-intuitively, this hardliner defeat does not provide Rouhani with an advantage. It suggests instead that the anticipated internal balancing act will need to weigh further on the moderates. The internal dynamic in Tehran can be expected thus to be one in which the Rouhani approach is hailed, while Rouhani himself accepts some degree of a temporary graceful retreat.

In complement to its two-pronged engagements, negotiations and kinetics, Iran has maintained a dual messaging scheme — underlining to proxies and allies its fundamental enmity to Western imperialism, while suggesting to Western interlocutors that the containment of terrorism and the management of stability in the Middle East will require Iranian leadership. The discrepancy in delivery between the two engagements disrupts the parallel messaging and exposes Iran in crucial circles to accusations of submission and complicity with the West. Safeguarding Iranian influence in its target Middle East constituencies — with both religious and ideological affinities — will require more prominence and more display of force by the battered hardliners.

The tested and true oligarchic order in Tehran may avoid excesses in the hardliners’ need to balance the moderates’ success with an achievement of their own. Still, for the Iranian multiple elites to be able to advance in their engagement with the West, internal equilibrium will have to be maintained. Some movement in favor of the hardliners can thus be anticipated.