Iran's 'Deep State' Has the Most to Lose from Opening to the West

If the deep state succeeds in keeping Iran isolated, it will once again squander a golden opportunity to advance its national interests.

The comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—was signed on July 14. A few days later, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 2231 endorsing it. October 18 was “adoption day” for the agreement, the day both sides began laying the legal groundwork for carrying out their obligations under the agreement. In particular, the European Union and the United States began the legal process of lifting economic sanctions against Iran.

Led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s moderates and pragmatists have been trying to open their country’s gates to the outside world. Believing that the shadow of war has been lifted, they are trying to attract foreign investments, normalize Iran’s relations with the West and in particular the United States, and move the nation’s political system toward a more inclusive and open one.

Iran’s deep state, the security and intelligence forces and their hardline supporters that hide behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not want Rouhani to accomplish his goal of normalization of relations with the West. While it does want lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, it also abhors opening Iran to the world. The reason is clear: normalization of political and economic ties to the West will lead to a loosening of the deep state’s grip on political power. Loss of political power will inevitably lead to the loss of economic might and privileges that the deep state and its supporters enjoy.

If the deep state succeeds in keeping Iran isolated, it will once again squander a golden opportunity for using Iran’s strategic importance to the West to protect, expand and advance its national security and interests.

For a time, it had appeared that the deep state might follow Khamenei and be open to the possibility of limited rapprochement with the United States. This created the hope that the two countries could address some of the crises in the Middle East that have set the region on a path of destruction and bloodshed. The evidence for this was provided by a speech on April 9, when Khamenei declared: “If the other side [the United States] sets aside its bad behavior, this will become a new experience for us, one that will tell us that, well, we can also negotiate with them about other issues.”

But after the nuclear agreement, Khamenei began backtracking. In speech after speech, he has been lashing out at the United States, accusing it of trying to gain undue influence in Iran. His supporters have been fiercely attacking Rouhani, Zarif and the reformists.

After Zarif shook President Obama’s hand on September 29 on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Khamenei fiercely attacked the United States in a speech on October 7, declaring that he has banned any negotiations with the U.S. over any issue other than the nuclear agreement. Accusing the U.S. of trying to gain influence in Iran, he said, “Negotiations with the United States open the gates to its economic, cultural, political, and security influence. Even during the nuclear negotiations they tried to harm our national interests.” Taking a jab at the Rouhani and his nuclear negotiators, Khamenei added, "Our negotiators were vigilant, but the Americans took advantage of a few chances.” The Supreme Leader divided the proponents of rapprochement with the U.S. into two groups, the thoughtless—those who do not care about Iran’s national interests—and the nonchalant—those who do not understand the depth of the issues and their complexities—and implied that Rouhani and his administration are in the second group.

Then, in a press conference on October 11, Gholamhossein Mohseni Eje’i, the hardline deputy to the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, accused, without naming, some members of the Rouhani administration of trying to open the door to greater United States influence in Iran. At the same time Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC chief, said that some officials want to transform the Islamic Revolution to an Islamic Republic, meaning transforming Iran to a normal, non-revolutionary state. The Revolutionary Guards, Jafari said, “will never allow that.” Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a senior adviser to Khamenei and father-in-law of his son Mojtaba, said on October 15 that “we are concerned about some officials opening the way for U.S. influence in Iran,” widely interpreted as referring to Rouhani and Zarif.