The Quiet Fight for Iran's Future

President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to Qazvin. Wikimedia Commons/Hossein Mir Kamali

The future direction of Iran’s foreign policy is all about internal politics.

Iran watchers have puzzled to assess whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Iran and the international community agreed to on July 14, 2015, would lead to a fundamental reorientation in Iran’s foreign policy.

After taking power in 1979, the revolutionary regime adopted an international posture that combined the export of the Islamist revolution, a quest for regional hegemony, defiance of international norms and, most consequentially, the search for an atomic arsenal. Over the years, these policies turned Iran into a virtual pariah state—a process made unbearable when the United Nations imposed heavy sanctions to force the regime to roll back its nuclear project.

Form the onset of his presidency, Hassan Rouhani and his supporters considered the JCPOA to be a first step in a grander plan to normalize Iran’s international relations and reintegrate it into the community of nations. But opposition to normalization has not disappeared, because important elites have objected to the conditions that would make Iran a member in good standing of the international community.

Power struggle between the normalizers and their opponents (spoilers) would dictate the outcome of the normalization process. In fact, the political system in Iran, known as the negotiated political order, is especially susceptible to manipulation by putative spoilers. Unlike the standard hierarchical polity, Iran's negotiated political order is based on a series of complex arrangement among elites whose power base is anchored either in the state or parastatal domain. The president and the state bureaucracy compete with the parastatal Revolutionary Guards, the Basij—a volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the Revolutionary Guards with multifaceted roles—and large revolutionary foundations like Bonyad-e Mostazafan-e Enghelab-e Eslami, all outside the control of the state. Internal fragmentation of elites along personal or ideological lines adds to the confusion. In principle, the supreme leader is tasked with making binding decisions, but his power is far from absolute. Secretive, complex and intense maneuvering, intimidation, brinkmanship and even violence combine to generate a fluid and opaque decisionmaking process. This often results in contradictory messages emanating from Tehran.

In conceptualizing the project of normalization, the custodians have paid considerable attention to the rules of international behavior. At the same time, however, they well understand the limits imposed by the negotiated political order. By compromising between the two imperatives, the custodians have generated a plan of action that represents a facet of normalization that in principle is required for full reintegration into the international order, but that the custodians decided to prioritize, knowing their domestic limitations.

The normalizers managed to successfully implement the JCPOA on January 16, 2016, and, according to the IAEA, there have been no breaches in the conditions imposed. The result of the February 26, 2016, parliamentary election has given the normalizers considerable political cover. Reformists gained 135 seats in the new 290-member parliament, with ninety-two seats obtained by their conservative rivals. The fifty-two remaining seats went to independents, and five seats were garnered by religious minorities, a bloc that could hold the balance of power.

While the parliamentary configuration virtually precludes political damage, there is at least a theoretical possibility that spoilers may want to sabotage the agreement using clandestine methods. According to the IAEA Safeguards Division and the intelligence services of countries that monitor Iran, there has been no effort to fabricate uranium in a secret facility. Admittedly, the Safeguard Division and Western intelligence services would have a harder time tracking small-scale weaponization work.

Much as the JCOPA closed the path to enrichment, it left the spoilers with a window of opportunity to pursue the ballistic missile project, a concession that they demanded from the custodians. In its latest move, on September 21, 2016, a military parade in Tehran utilized missiles to threaten Israel. A banner on one of the missile-carrying trucks shown on state TV read: “If the Zionist regime makes a mistake, the Islamic Republic will turn Tel Aviv and Haifa to dust.” Because they well knew that they could not annihilate Tel Aviv and Haifa, the threats are apparently designed to embarrass the custodians.

As articulated by the custodians, managing terror and limited overt military actions are only second in importance to the project of normalization. From its earliest days, the regime followed the doctrine of exporting the revolution, which Ayatollah Khomeini had promulgated as early as the 1940s. Upon taking power, Khomeini reaffirmed the revolutionary intention of the new regime; he declared that “we should export our revolution to the whole Muslim world and to the whole world in the next step.”

The preamble of the new constitution of the Islamic Republic, which was promulgated on December 3, 1979, declared that “the way of Islamic ruling” is “based on the Islamic content of Iran’s revolution,” and that “the constitution provides a basis for continuing the revolution at home and abroad” and paves the way to set up the global Ummah. Paragraphs 152 to 155 mandate Iran to spread its particular brand of Islamism to other countries.

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