Political rivalries and protests as Iran waits for US decision on nuclear deal

Published in GSN, 26 April 2018

Speculation over whether the United States will stick to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal was in full flood as GSN went to press, with French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington, followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen as perhaps the last big opportunity for Europe to convince President Donald Trump to stand by the painstakingly constructed deal which has been in force for a little over two years. True to his mercurial form, Trump hinted he may yet reverse his oft-stated determination to exit the JCPOA, saying on 25 April, following discussions with Macron, that “we could at least have an agreement among ourselves fairly quickly”.

It would be rash to place too much store by such comments. Even if Trump can be convinced, it remains to be seen whether any new formula would prove acceptable to Tehran, but it will require a formidable diplomatic push by European governments and Russia to convince Iran to accept any amendments, extensions or reviews. Iranian leaders remain adamant they will not renegotiate; they would rather exit the JCPOA – and possibly the even more important Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and quickly resume uranium enrichment activities were the US to pull out.

This could have a significant bearing on Iran’s domestic politics, and in particular the balance between ‘principalists’/hardliners and Rouhani’s centrist/moderate coalition of convenience. The Islamic Republic’s faultlines reflect decades-long battles for influence, with factional/ideological techtonics shifting, due not only to US pressure on the JCPOA, but also to the impact of recent anti-government protests and the knowledge that Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not expected to live that much longer. “Right now the factionalism seems more intense. It’s a critical juncture, a fork-in-the-road moment,” one analyst told GSN.

This contest more often happens behind the scenes, but faction-fighting can have public expression, as when reformist Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament) deputy for Tehran Mahmoud Sadeghi recently called on Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC) intelligence director Hossein Taib to rein in agents accused of excesses during detention and interrogation – as is suspected of causing the deaths earlier this year of several environmentalists held in custody by the IRGC intelligence service, including distinguished Canadian-Iranian Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami (GSN 1,054/14).

Hardliners are alive to criticism and do their best to quell any open dissent. The IRGC issued a statement on 19 April in which it criticised “divisive measures and remarks by certain internal elements”. On 21 April, army chief Abdolrahim Mousavi called for greater unity within the army, comments described by Khamenei the following day as “a sign of management wisdom and inner virtue”.

The regime is constantly engaged in keeping public protests under control. The wave of large anti-regime demonstrations that washed across Iran in December, gripping the attention of foreign media, has all but evaporated since the authorities rounded up hundreds of malcontents (GSN 1,051/1). Even so, smaller protests continuine around the Islamic Republic. Merchants took to the streets of towns in western Iran in mid-April, angry at the impact of the closed border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Other recent demonstrations have included farmers complaining about water shortages in Isfahan and protests by Arab communities in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province about being marginalised.

Further public protests could yet be provoked by the currency crisis, which is leading to shortages in hard currency and could fuel a renewed surge in inflation (GSN 1,057/9). Since a new artificially low rate was imposed on dollar-rial trading on 10 April, reports have indicated the foreign exchange market is seizing up. While black market operators are stepping in to fill the gap, some businesses are likely to find it hard to pay for imports and settle other bills. The situation is likely to further undermine the foreign investment that Rouhani promised would be an important JCPOA bonus. Companies canvassed by GSN said they were taking a ‘wait-and-see approach’, but investors added that the current crises were a potentially troublesome – and certainly politically sensitive – issue.

The authorities have tried to pin blame for the currency market turmoil on malign outside influences. Khamenei told a Ministry of Intelligence staff audience on 18 April that “the role of foreigners and their intelligence services was obvious in the recent chaos in Iran’s currency market”. The rial’s sharp devaluation over recent weeks is more likely to be due to a loss of confidence amid speculation that Trump will make good on his threat to pull out of JCPOA.

Who’s next?

The process of succession to Khamenei is perhaps the greatest imponderable. The rahbar has not named a preferred successor, although he is widely believed to favour a hardliner such as Razavi Ebrahim Raeisi. Raeisi failed to grab the popular imagination in last year’s presidential election – garnering 38% and thus paving the way for another landslide victory for Rouhani (GSN 1,037/1) – but centrists and reformers would have few options to prevent him securing the top job, given the ‘principalist’ dominance of the Assembly of Experts. However, were Khamenei to die suddenly without having named his replacement, other options might come into play, giving more moderate candidates – sources speculated about a campaign to promote Rouhani or perhaps Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the 1979 revolution’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – an opportunity, albeit probably a slim one.

For now, rival factions continue to test each other’s strength. Among recent battles was the recent two-stage resignation of Tehran mayor Mohammad Ali Najafi. Najafi took office last August following a clean sweep by reformists in elections to the capital’s council, but he resigned in mid-March citing medical issues. Tehran City Council rejected his resignation by 16 votes to four on 8 April, amid suggestions he was being forced out by hardliners. That appeared to be well-founded when prosecutor-general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri publicly told Najafi: “resign and you won’t be prosecuted”. Najafi duly handed in his resignation once more on 9 April, again citing unspecified health problems; the following day the council accepted his departure.

Najafi has often referred to claims of widespread corruption during the tenure of his predecessor as Tehran mayor, former IRGC general Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, another of last year’s failed presidential candidates. That appears to have been the motivation for the hounding of Najafi. Hardliners found grounds for attacking him when he attended an event on 6 March to celebrate Women’s Day at which girls danced in front of a mixed-sex audience, scandalising conservatives. His ousting may yet prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the hardliners though, as among the figures who could take over from Najafi is the ‘moderate’ Mohsen Hashemi, son of the pragmatic late president Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Reformists had more to cheer with the recent arrest of hardline former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi in northern Iran. He had been convicted and sentenced to two years for his involvement in the death of a man arrested during anti-government protests in the wake of the disputed 2009 presidential election, but had absconded rather than hand himself in.

Bigger problems for reformists may come after 12 May. If Trump does pull the US out of the nuclear deal it will be a vindication for those who opposed the JCPOA from the start. Rouhani’s credibility – and with it other moderate voices – will be damaged. There is likely to be concerted pressure for the regime to coalesce around a more hardline stance, which reformists might find impossible to resist as the regime’s hard core strikes back.